Monday, 25 June 2012

ALL EYES ON THE BACKBENCH, PLEASE.

The Muskrat Falls project, in all its complexity and potential for negative outcomes, is akin to a bomb with multiple warheads for politicians.  Political fallout could occur from several directions, perhaps even at once.  Weaknesses in decision making will be exposed as cost projections continue to increase, the price of oil remains weak, and low natural gas prices and power conversions to that form, continue to dominate the energy news in other jurisdictions. Look for a number of Cabinet Ministers and backbenchers alike, to become uncomfortable. 
By the time Muskrat Falls is sanctioned, it will be interesting to see whether any of the current Ministers have the courage exhibited, in another time, by John Crosbie, Clyde Wells, Alex Hickman and Val Earle, who sought the Opposition benches (Wells became an independent MHA) when the Smallwood government engaged in reckless behaviour with the finances of the Province.

Will any of them follow the example of Tom Rideout or Jim Hodder, who left the Liberal Party in the mid-1980s, because of the Party’s failure to back the Peckford Tories over natural resource issues and revenue sharing with the Feds?
Now, it’s the Tories who are in government and who are playing fast and loose with public policy and the public treasury. 

But even before you take notice of how guarded certain Ministers will become, you would do well to watch the Members sitting in the government’s back benches. 

In a caucus of 37 men and women, one might expect the behaviour of the Premier and certain Ministers to cause serious cracks in caucus unity in the days before project sanction.   

The real question is: will each and every one of them hold fast to their jobs rather than take a principled stand?  Will they insist that Nalcor’s vision of ‘le grand projet’ be halted or are they prepared to stick it out and risk going down with the ship?  Once voters get a handle on the costs of the project and the fact that they are tied both to the debt and to high power rates for 50 years, they will not be amused over how glib the government has been on this issue.
Muskrat Falls, alone, may not spook the backbench. But, there is one thing more important than a giant risk laden project.  What could be more important than a huge financial debacle?  Well, re-election, of course!

The backbench is a group typically ignored especially when the electorate is happy.  But the leader ignores the backbench, at her/his peril; the price for such carelessness is paid when things go awry. 
Dunderdale’s polling numbers have been in steady decline since the election.  According to Corporate Research Associates Inc., a polling firm, numbers for overall satisfaction with the provincial government is at the lowest level since 2004.  Satisfaction is down by 13 points    (60% from 73%) in three months.  Support for the P.C. party is now 49% down from 54% in February, 2012.  Significantly, Kathy Dunderdale’s personal popularity declined from 48% three months ago to 44% in May/June, 2012.

Historically, party members are not pleased when the ‘Party’ is propping up the Premier. Nothing spooks a backbench more than a failing First Minister.  Nothing will keep them in line when political oblivion is the pollster’s only forecast reward for their disciplined silence. If Premier Dunderdale thinks that muttering in the backbench has not already begun, she is clearly out of touch!
The Premier’s numbers are critical. That simple fact was a constant reminder for Frank Moores, whose popularity descended into swift decline following Joey’s tortuous but final defeat in 1972.   Liberals were prepared to park their loyalty to effect Joey’s departure; but party loyalties endured, and that fact together with an empty till, and innumerable demands from MHAs, high unemployment and poor infrastructure, helped keep Frank’s approval numbers low and his back bench unsettled. 

You might be surprised just how frequently Moores was called back into town to deal with caucus discontent.  With good reason!  Only Smallwood’s Liberal Reform Party, which split the Liberal vote, could guarantee the Tories return to power in 1975. 
Brian Peckford and Danny Williams enjoyed high approval ratings throughout their tenure, so trouble in the backbench, for them, was not an issue. In Peckford’s case, notwithstanding his solid poll numbers, he, unlike Moores, always engaged backbenchers on a personal level, never giving them reason to stray.

As the cost of Muskrat Falls goes skyward with the inexorable trajectory of an overpowered rocket, and as average Newfoundlanders and Labradorians start to understand they are expected to underwrite Alderon’s power requirements, things could start getting hot and heavy. 
The other point to consider is that the backbench gets none of the respect and few of the benefits of a cabinet minister.  Some of the smart ones will sense that the leadership is losing control and will line up new work; others will simply jump ship, especially if Dean MacDonald, offers greater promise, that is to say, a greater chance of re-election.   

Note, too, that the Muskrat Falls debate in the House of Assembly will not conclude with a vote.  Hence, dissenters on the government side will have to either speak or walk, or both.
The other group Dunderdale has to be conscious of are the Cabinet Ministers who have been around awhile and whose pensions are secure.  Some will not want to spend the rest of their days having friends and family, and just about everyone else, pick at the festering scab that each will wear for nodding approval of Muskrat Falls.  

Yes, Premier Dunderdale, Jerome Kennedy and Tom Marshall will receive the greatest vilification, but every Minister is responsible for cabinet decisions; none will escape the burden of history for having participated in what will likely be the worst economic decision on record.

The scenario to watch, as Dunderdale’s numbers continue to slide, is the likelihood of her early departure due to stress or for some other reason. The back bench will be behind some of that stress.  A suitable replacement in Cabinet, someone who shares the same blindness for Muskrat Falls, that Dunderdale possesses, will have to be at the ready.   
A new leader of the Liberal party has already been chosen, if he wants it.  Dino is also a friend of Danny (a Liberal, who knew!).  He will certainly be Opposition Leader, should unforeseen events not facilitate a suitable (electable) and timely replacement for Dunderdale.  Danny can assist that process. He is already seen by many as the ‘puppet master’.

But the most important question is: will the current Tory leader have the skill-set to stem a caucus revolt over bad polls? 
Danny has a lot of work to do, too.

Beware the ‘puppeteer’.

2 comments:

  1. Insightful commentary. I trust that PC MHA's will place their loyalty FIRST to Newfoundland and Labrador --- and not to the puppeteer, to the current premier, or even the party.

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  2. It's so very clear to a lot of us what this Government is doing, how and why are they getting away with it. We had family members and there are family members now, fighting for Democrary. The hardship this is going to cause,to so many Newfoundlanders,to our chrildren and their chrildren and their chrildren, it's just unbelieveable. How are they making sence of this, their just so ruthless. How do they sleep at night knowing what they are about to do to us. Over this pass year I've learned that to be a PC you have to be cold and callus, you have to have no empathy, no heart, no feelings, no compassion, you have to be stone cold. These are the people we have working for us, and the PC up in Ottawa all have the same charateristics. This is so frightening. The future is very dark with this PC Government.

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