The massive obstacles facing Kathy Dunderdale

Overhauling the fishery is just one tricky question that Kathy Dunderdale will soon have to answer, writes Doug Letto.

I "discovered" Kathy Dunderdale in 1995 during Lynn Verge's run for the PC leadership. She was co-chair of the Verge campaign and joined us on the TV broadcast of the race between Verge and Loyola Sullivan. 

On two other occasions, including in September 1997, she co-hosted municipal elections coverage with me. 

My "discovery" of Kathy Dunderdale of course, is no discovery at all. She cut her political teeth on the town council in her hometown of Burin, well before I knew her. And it was no easy initiation into politics. It was during the fishery restructuring in the early 1980s, and several big Newfoundland fish companies were about to be combined into a single entity, Fishery Products International — FPI.

In late 1982, FPI announced plans to close its 43-year-old plant at Burin. The town council formed the Burin Action Committee to keep their plant and the 600 or so jobs associated with it. In order to pressure FPI to keep their plant open, and to prevent the company from repositioning the nine trawlers attached to Burin, they set up a picket line.

The final straw for the committee came on the day FPI sent a tractor-trailer to pick up $1-million worth of frozen fish. Council crews dug up the road leading to the plant to "repair" a broken water main. By the time the dust settled, FPI agreed to set up a secondary processing plant at Burin. It continues to operate, now under High Liner Foods.

There's no suggestion Dunderdale initiated that action, but you can't doubt the lessons learned in this grassroots example of political action.

Now that she's back in the Premier's office with her own mandate,  Kathy Dunderdale may have to use some of that toughness to take on some long-simmering issues.

The fishery

I remember sitting in Walter Carter's office and interviewing the then Liberal fisheries minister about the industry in the wake of the 1992 moratorium.

He had part of the problem figured out.

"There are too many fishermen chasing too few fish," he told me. "And too many plants."

Kathy Dunderdale spoke with FFAW representative Allan Moulton during a campaign stop in Burin about the future of the Marystown fish plant. ((CBC))

Governments since have said the same thing. They've threatened action.  And now Dunderdale is doing the same.

"I think the time has come when we really have to wrestle with the tough issues, particularly with the fishery," she told CBC the morning after her election win.

The challenge: Can her actions match up to her tough words? Will she introduce a new fisheries minister  to bring about change?

Muskrat Falls

In early summer, the Liberals threatened to make Muskrat Falls the election issue. They tried, but there was little evidence it caught the public's imagination. 

Still, the sting of their attack — that people's electricity bills will double between now and 2017 —raises lots of questions. And the government, apart from briefings offered by Nalcor, seems to have not clearly communicated the Muskrat Falls plan to the public.

Dunderdale appears to have recognized the communications vacuum; she told CBC's On Point With David Cochrane that she will bring the issue to the legislature for debate, but not a vote, before it gets the green light.

Her challenge: Convincing the public that Muskrat Falls is a good deal.

Fiscal restraint

Spending has increased at a dizzying pace since oil revenue started gushing into the treasury.  Dunderdale has promised she will limit new spending.

The phrase "fiscal responsibility" was the headline for the second section of the party's New Energy blue book.

The challenge: Can she and the government say no? Consistently?

Meeting the aging wave

It's not a wave. It's a tsunami.

The population is aging more quickly here than anywhere else in Canada. There are huge and expensive demands for more homecare, more spaces in long-term-care homes, and a more creative way of providing continuing support to frail seniors released from hospital. If it's expensive to act now, it will be hugely expensive to delay action.

The challenge: Can Dunderdale's government avoid policy and decision paralysis, so they can make an orderly start to addressing the elderly care issue.

Moving forward

Kathy Dunderdale made history with her win on Oct. 11. She's the first woman leader to win a general election in 156 years of responsible government.

But I'm guessing none of that will mean anything to Dunderdale or the public if her government fails to tackle some of the big issues, and where sound policy can begin to solve problems now and build a strong path toward the future.