Kathy Dunderdale shrugs off mid-term popularity slump
Premier failing to communicate her vision, political scientist says
As Kathy Dunderdale was poised almost two years ago to become Newfoundland and Labrador's first elected female premier, she spoke about wanting not merely a four-year stint in power but an eight-year run.
Time will tell if she gets that far.
Dunderdale is not quite midway through her first majority mandate since she triumphed on Oct. 11, 2011. But her Progressive Conservatives have slumped so far from once sky-high approval ratings under former premier Danny Williams that she was asked last week if she plans to step down.
"I am not going to resign, especially not by invitation of Mr. Wangersky," Dunderdale told reporters. "He has never been a friend of the Tory government."
Dunderdale was referring to a recent front-page column by Russell Wangersky of the daily St. John's Telegram that pulled no punches. It followed the latest round of bruising public opinion polls tracking the governing party's dramatic decline since she took power.
"Kathy Dunderdale, your race is run," Wangersky wrote. "You may not know it yet — you may not even want to believe it — but it's over.
"Take the small successes that have come with a long political career and get off the stage — or else run the real risk of driving your entire party over an electoral cliff."
In particular, Wangersky cited the government's defence of Bill 29, the legislation last year that inspired a marathon opposition filibuster. It tightened access to government information and was slammed by national accountability groups such as Democracy Watch as shockingly regressive.
Wangersky also chided Dunderdale for what he described as a government-knows-best attitude when it comes to even the most informed criticism of the $7.7-billion Muskrat Falls hydro project and other issues.
Caucus fully behind premier, Marshall says
A letter to the editor in Saturday's Telegram, signed by one of Dunderdale's most senior cabinet ministers, declared that the Conservative caucus is fully behind Dunderdale. Natural Resources Minister Tom Marshall defended the premier's accomplishments, including on energy and social issues, and said her principled leadership is needed.
"As a member of her caucus, I can say we are 100 per cent behind this smart and courageous leader," says Marshall's letter.
Although the premier shrugged off the column, she still faces bleak poll numbers.
"What's incredibly clear is that since Kathy Dunderdale took over, there has been a very steady decline in satisfaction with the provincial government," said Margaret Chapman, vice-president of Halifax-based Corporate Research Associates.
Otherworldly satisfaction ratings of more than 80 per cent under Williams have dropped over the last two years to 31 per cent in August, Chapman said. The Corporate Research Associates poll done by telephone in August had a margin of error of 4.9 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.
Those results are despite the fact that the provincial Liberal party is in the midst of a leadership race and won't have someone firmly at the helm until a convention in November.
Public disdain for the Dunderdale administration persists even through glowing consumer confidence measures, Chapman noted.
'Self-induced political harm'
Christopher Dunn, a political scientist at Memorial University of Newfoundland, says it boils down to Dunderdale's failure to convey her vision and contributions while keeping lines of communication open.
Still, he's giving her the benefit of the doubt — for now.
"I don't think these poll results are permanent. I think they're the result of self-induced political harm."
Dunderdale has time to turn things around but, if a change of course fails to lift her numbers, that may run out, Dunn said.
"It's situations like that which lead to leadership challenges and mobilization of the troops in the opposite direction."
Conservative strategist Tim Powers, vice-president of Summa Communications, said a caucus revolt could do more harm than good.
"I think parties are judged on their ability of how they operate themselves and how they treat their own."
The Progressive Conservatives have held power since 2003.
"I think there is a legitimate criticism to be made that governments after they've been in power for 10 years, rightly or wrongly, perhaps get a little bit tone deaf," Powers said.
His advice to the premier? "Hang in there," he said, adding that recent election results in Alberta and B.C. are proof that seemingly doomed incumbents can come back to win.
"I think it would be folly for anybody to diagnose right now the demise of the Progressive Conservatives, assume the ascension of the Liberals and write off the NDP. Two years is a very, very long time and we have to see this play out."