Nfld. & Labrador

Cochrane | Tories need to rethink their entire game plan

Having dropped from first to worst in all key measurements, the PCs must now must learn to eat some humble pie, writes David Cochrane.

PCs heading towards friends-and-family-only levels of popularity

Happier days: Kathy Dunderdale was flanked by the Tory caucus when she announced the sanctioning of Muskrat Falls last December. (Graham Kennedy/The Canadian Press)

Despite months of the premier, the cabinet and PC MHAs telling people that the government is doing the right things, in the right way, for the right reasons, it is now abundantly clear that the public isn’t buying it.

The latest poll from Corporate Research Associates puts the Tories at numbers they haven’t seen since Brian Tobin was premier.

At 27 per cent in party support and just 21 per cent for Premier Kathy Dunderdale, the Progressive Conservatives are heading towards friends-and-family-only levels of popularity.

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Catch this week's episode of On Point with David Cochrane on Saturday evening at 7:30 p.m. NT. Click this link to see the show on demand.  

It cements a year-long pattern of decline that has seen the Tories drop from first to worst in all key measurements, while the number of people who think the government is doing a bad job has effectively doubled. It is a rapid loss of the public’s trust.

The excuse this time is that the PCs are suffering the inevitable consequences of a tough budget. That repeats a pattern of blaming one-off issues for each successive drop in the polls.

From Bill 29, to Muskrat Falls there has always been a single, identifiable reason the Tories could use as an explanation for poll-by-poll decline.

But eventually that series of unpopular or difficult decisions knit together to form a government’s record. This recent budget was the toughest in a decade and many of the cuts may have been necessary.

But the public isn’t just upset because there were cuts. They are also blaming the government for the financial mess that made them necessary in the first place.

This isn’t 2004 where a recently defeated Liberal government provided a convenient scapegoat for tough choices. This is 2013 — halfway through the third mandate of a Progressive Conservative government — and there is nobody else to blame for the inability to balance the books in a time of economic growth and $100 oil.

A secretive impression

The layoffs and cutbacks also come at a time when the government is pouring billions of dollars into the Muskrat Falls project.

Many of the contracts Nalcor signs have to stay secret for commercially sensitive reasons, but coming on the heels of layoffs, cutbacks, and Bill 29 it simply reinforces the impression of a remote and secretive government.

Some PC Party insiders have been expecting a poll like this for months. There has been nervousness inside the Tory ranks about the government’s entire approach to communications. They complain that is not proactive enough in seeking to present the premier in a positive way.

They also complain privately about "The Bubble." That's a reference to the tight circle of senior cabinet ministers, staffers and die-hard loyalists who are at the centre of the government’s key strategic decisions. 

"The Bubble" is viewed as being too insular and too remote from public sentiment. They complain that it has made the government too reactive, too dismissive and too defensive.

You can see the evidence of that last complaint in the official news releases on the government news wire.

The departmental communication directors are supposed to be non-partisan civil servants. But lately they have been reduced to crafting partisan screeds aimed mostly at the NDP (referred to derisively as the Third Party).

These missives — which are highly inappropriate for official government statements — amount to ministerial lectures about the irresponsibility and fear-mongering of the opposition parties. It is a bad look for the government.

What an image problem

That’s really been the PC’s biggest problem: image. By most measures, this is a government that should be popular. Employment, income levels and economic growth are all trending in the right direction, while the party’s popularity goes in the wrong direction.

The PCs have made such a mess of their communications approach the government is getting almost no credit for a strong economy.

The CRA poll reinforces this. It clearly shows that the public just doesn’t think the government is doing a good job. Some 63 per cent say they are dissatisfied with the PC’s performance. That’s up from just 33 per cent from one year ago. That’s a fatal trend for any government.

The Tory caucus will soon hit the road to participate in the summer festival and BBQ circuit. In between the burgers and potato salad, Tory MHAs might want to have an extra helping of humble pie.

The government’s tone is currently a blend of dismissiveness and exasperation that borders on condescension. It is time to listen long and hard and rethink their entire approach.