Monday, 17 September 2012


When a Member defects, as Tom Osborne did last week, there are always repercussions for the party leader. 

When the act is by a Member on the Government side, as Osborne was, the ensuing questions and concerns are magnified.  Why?   The defection speaks less to the defector, personally, than to the message he sends regarding the condition of the ‘ship of state’.
Cartoon Credit: John Meaney, Rant and Roar
For that reason, the political fallout must first, be understood, and then, skillfully (intelligently) handled.

People are unnerved about any political upset; but, they are alarmed when the Premier’s response is perceived as one that diminishes her person and her office.
Unfortunately, most people do not engage politics except on a superficial level; they should not be judged too harshly, for life intervenes and there are mouths to feed.  But they are never completely tuned out; that is why, intuitively, people take note when they feel ill at ease by the very government they have put in charge.

Tom Osborne’s decision to quit the P.C. Caucus is a clarion call, a call to action.  Skillful leaders know that, in these circumstances, the public wants re-assurance, expressions of intelligent thought and consistency, overlain with a reasonable rationale for what has just transpired.  None of that was on offer, last week. Indeed, the sheer scale of the vituperation emanating from Government Members was truly appalling.  
Osborne, it must be remembered, is not just any MHA.  He was the longest serving member of the P.C. Caucus. Both he and his family boasted a record of Party service that outshone every other Member. He held three Cabinet posts. He enjoys respect in his constituency and has been returned to the House of Assembly a total of five times. He has not quit over any point of principle or singular issue, except for, as he clearly stated, a lack of confidence in the Premier. 

A party stalwart with that record, is not one that you should mindlessly pillory or denigrate.  He has not defected to another Party; hence, with the leadership problem fixed, he could possibly be back in his usual seat within months.  These are the facts.

Let’s look at the Government’s response.

The first battalion of MHAs took to Twitter, that denier of thoughtful expression; Sandy Collins uttered: “when you remove the weakest link…“.  The Telegram Reporter, James McLeod, soon  noted an overuse of the phrase “disengaged from the Caucus”. MHAs Steve Kent, Paul Lane and Clyde Jackman had weighed in.  Joan Burke, headed to the Open Line Show with a message to Osborne of “good riddance”, and to the public that he was “deadwood”.
It was then the Premier’s turn: she had to make sure she was on the same level as the worst skeet in her caucus.  Throughout her CBC “ON POINT” Interview the Premier chose to play to the negative view of Osborne; her most disturbing line was contained in a lecture she had given the MHA, some months earlier: “…you have to rebuild your relationship with me…you have to rebuild your trust with me…”. Foolish me, I thought those things were mutually shared!

If this script was the reflexive lingo of the dullards in the backbench, you would roll your eyes and try to countenance the trials of a young democracy.  But, MHAs Steve Kent, Paul Lane, Sandy Collins and others did not think up those lines alone; they were told to utter them. Perhaps, they and the Premier thought they were tightly scripted! Oh My! Oh My!  
Think about it.  The Premier is being battered in the Polls, she needs public support for an expensive megaproject of declining repute, she has just lost a Member from her caucus who retains ample credibility.   She has treated him poorly.  What does she do?  She takes advice from a bunch of lazy “PR” types whose kneejerk lines are better suited to “Morons ‘R’ Us”.  She and the elected Members buy it and run to the airways, including Joan Burke, who should be one of a group of Ministers the Premier can count on for sound advice in a crises! You are surprised this Government is in trouble? 

What should government’s response have been?
First, it should have reflected the role of Government, and how Osborne’s departure impacted its agenda and its essential message (assuming they know either).  It should also have been considerate of the ‘dignity’, of the Office of Premier and I would submit, the person who holds that Office. 

The Government’s message should have been one of reassurance to a skeptical public. The Premier ought to have been able to say that she has been busy on her agenda and that perhaps she should have been in closer touch with her back bench.  She could have added that she is going to try harder, that Tom Osborne is an important Member and that she wants him back in her caucus; that she will do everything possible to earn his trust.  Might she have added anything more? Yes.  It is that she wished him good luck. 

For good measure, a careful Premier might have added, in a voice that bespoke knowledge of public antipathy to the Amendment, that Bill 29 was really a bad idea, that it will be repealed as soon as the House opens.
Who could have disputed such an open, heartfelt and honest response to a very embarrassing and tricky problem? No one!

What was its cost? Nothing; on the contrary, it might have netted her some respect and sympathy for her situation. The whole Osborne affair could have been a 24 hour wonder.  Instead, it was a debacle.
One final point: creating acceptable public policy is a complicated and difficult job; it always has been. And, why shouldn’t it be; afterall, we live a complex, modern society where people share opinions and have a fundamental right to influence the political process.  That political process also gives Osborne the "right" to defect.

Such complexities imply that any strategy of communications cannot be ‘kneejerk’; it must always follow a plan which necessarily must withstand challenges, including the current one; hence, it has to be thoughtful.  It should reflect common values; those to which most people subscribe, like common decency. 
As much as some politicians prefer to default to secrecy and pillorying critics, that is the intellectually lazy method of governing; it will only work short term, if at all. No self-respecting Member would want to be part of that deal. Not Tom Osborne, not the next MHA who is tired of ‘amateur hour’ in the Premier’s Office.

Is the Premier capable of re-setting a failed administration?  Should citizens feel that they will be spared further missteps? The events of the past few days are not reassuring.