Tory leadership a tough sell in Newfoundland
ST. JOHN'S, N.L. - The next Progressive Conservative leader in Newfoundland and Labrador will take the helm of a government that has dropped in popularity and must face voters within a year of becoming premier.
It's not exactly an easy sell. So far only fishery magnate Bill Barry and Corner Brook resident Clarence Cantwell — both political outsiders — have declared their intentions to run.
Three cabinet ministers who mulled over the prospect have opted out since nominations opened Feb. 17.
Other potential contenders have until Friday to decide whether they'll run in a leadership convention July 4-5 called after Kathy Dunderdale quit as premier Jan. 24.
"Kathy Dunderdale was severely pounded and criticized and went from a high to a great low when she left," said Newfoundlander Tim Powers, an Ottawa-based Conservative commentator and lobbyist who decided not to run for the leadership.
"I think history will be very fair to her. But people are looking at this in the immediate term and the personal and public bruising that you can take and that, in turn, your family members have to suffer through. It's not easy."
Dunderdale became the uncontested leader after former premier Danny Williams left politics in 2010. She led the Tories to a third straight majority government in October 2011 but took the brunt of public wrath as overspending and a drop in offshore oil earnings ran up deficits and led to 1,200 government job cuts last spring.
That was before a culmination of weather and equipment malfunctions caused provincewide power failures in January that left up to 190,000 customers in the dark.
Tom Marshall, a senior Tory cabinet minister who agreed to take over as premier, said he has no plans to run for leader.
Under provincial law, Dunderdale's resignation triggers an election within a year of the new full-time party leader becoming premier.
Tory leadership convention committee co-chairman Tommy Williams, the former premier's younger brother, said the lack of contenders so far is no surprise.
"A lot of people like to keep their cards close to their chest in these kinds of races," he said. "There's a lot of legwork to be done before you make the commitment to run."
Christopher Dunn and Kelly Blidook, political scientists at Memorial University of Newfoundland, said the next Tory leader faces a tough uphill climb.
"There's a strong likelihood that it will be a job that is achieved at great expense ... heading a relatively unpopular government as judged by current polls," Dunn said of the party's $350,000 cap on leadership campaign expenses.
"One can be sure that behind the scenes there's some frantic searching going on for contenders because I'm sure senior party officials realize that it looks bad if there's a race that isn't quite a race."
Blidook said the Tories may appear weak but should not be counted out.
"In politics you never really know," he said, citing the come-from-behind majority win by the B.C. Liberals last year that defied pollsters.
Barry ruffled feathers when he recently said people in past provincial governments wouldn't have known if a bucket of — and then he sounded out each letter separately — "s-h-i-t" landed on their heads. He said decision-makers need more business sense.
"People in government don't seem to be able to distinguish great ideas from good ideas from bad ideas," he said of gaffes ranging from the disastrous Upper Churchill hydro deal with Quebec in 1969 to the province's failed bid in the late 1980s to grow cucumbers in greenhouses.
Barry also raised eyebrows with a letter to the Tory caucus. It called for debate on whether more private enterprise in energy, health care and education should be an option.
That letter in part prompted Danny Williams to publicly strike Barry off his contenders' list.
"He doesn't stand for anything that I support," Williams said last month.
A big question is whether Frank Coleman, a Corner Brook businessman who owns a chain of grocery and furniture stores, will run and whether Williams will endorse him. Coleman did not respond to requests for an interview and Williams declined through a spokeswoman to comment.
Natural Resources Minister Derrick Dalley also said in an interview this week that he's considering a run.
Barry was philosophical when asked about rumours that some caucus and party members are coalescing around Coleman to challenge him at the delegated convention.
"In Newfoundland it has happened, more often than not, that parties actually put the fix in to decide who they want their leader to be and make it turn out that way. I would hope that's not the case."