Friday, 14 September 2012

Tom Osborne Defects: Time for a Realty Check

The announcement by the MHA for St. John’s South, Tom Osborne, that he is quitting the Dunderdale P.C.s, had me recalling my June 25th Post, entitled, “All Eyes on the Backbench, Please”.

Since posting that warning of the political cost of Dunderdale’s declining popularity her personal Poll numbers have been in free fall.  Her comment, that ‘strong leadership’ does not govern by Poll results, was unconvincing. 
Everyone knows, Premiers can’t let a single poll result or two cause a reversal in decision making.  But a trend will.  And what Premier Dunderdale is experiencing right now, is exactly that, a trend. 

Tom Osborne’s decision begs five points of analysis:
First, when the Premier’s popularity descends into free fall, the authority of leadership is the first casuality. Most Premiers have enough personal IOUs with caucus members that they can survive periods of voter displeasure, especially when it occurs early in the mandate. This is a crucial test which Dunderdale has failed.

Second, when Osborne refused to endorse Dunderdale for the uncontested Tory leadership position, she all but shunned him.  It was one thing not to appoint him to Cabinet; that is her prerogative.  It is quite another not to make him feel welcomed inside the Tory caucus and attempt to gain his confidence.  That is an error in judgement. 

Third, Osborne’s departure signals that the Government’s failing fortunes go deeper than bad polls.

Dunderdale has never articulated a multi-faceted program of strategic direction, as any government must. In large measure, the last election was fought on residual energy from the William’s administration (though some of it had a destructive component) and enough oil revenue to permit the government to say “yes” to virtually any demand for infrastructure and services. 
A policy mandate or even a philosophy of leadership was never defined during the campaign or since. Hence, the public has no sense of what her administration wants to achieve other than build an expensive and risky hydro project.

The Fourth point is an extension of the last one.  Right now, only Muskrat Falls and Bill 29 defines Dunderdale’s leadership. She took an awful political beating on Bill 29, especially once Opposition parties realized that they had the public’s attention. Her failure to realize that the public would connect the Bill with its desire to hide critical information on Muskrat Falls showed the deft hand of an amateur.       

Fifth, when a life-long Tory partisan feels he must leave the P.C. Caucus, some unusual and destructive force has a grip on the same Party that defeated Smallwood and turned years of struggle into the historic “Atlantic Accord”.   Something very fundamental has changed.
Osborne is no newbie when it comes to the Tory party. He learned the art of politics from his very partisan parents when he was in short pants. He, his mother and his Uncle held seats in the William’s government, simultaneously.  His father served on City Council and was a dedicated Tory since before the Moores’ era.  The Osborne family’s organizational skills are legendary in the P.C. Party.  Hence, Tom Osborne’s loss is not of one individual but of an entire organization.  Tory organizers in St. John’s will surely take notice.    

Tom Osborne was the only sitting Tory MHA who attended the launch of former premier Brian Peckford’s autobiography, “Someday the Sun will Shine and Have Not Will Be No More”.  Neither the Premier nor a single Cabinet Minister or any other backbench MHA came to congratulate him on his achievement. Dwight Ball and other Opposition MHAs and Senators found the occasion worthy enough to be present.  
This was an expression of small-mindedness by Dunderdale and co., to the man who, in no small measure, helped define her Party, played a key role in Constitution building at a critical juncture in Canadian history, and who won, for the Province, the ‘Atlantic Accord’.  It was an unfortunate reflection on her character; it magnified the fact that she had neither the capacity to display common courtesies or that she had ever learned the art of politics. Certainly, she does not understand that all disagreements are not personal. 

Peckford stated his position against Muskrat Falls.  Dunderdale replied by being condescending rather than paying him the deference he was due. In snubbing Peckford’s Book launch, Dunderdale and her Ministers not only missed an opportunity to be ‘one’ with enough Tory partisans to hold a rally, she reminded them of why she is a failing Premier.  Leadership is not always about the things you do; more often, it is about the messages you convey. Tom Osborne understood this better than the Premier.      
If Dunderdale does not change her approach to governing, there will be more resignations and defections. The sense of unease that this first defection will create, the public struggle with higher cost estimates on Muskrat and the growing public alarm will not go down well with MHAs who like to deal with constituents without reference to their ill-suited leader.

The Premier will need to give a clear signal soon that she is ready to try things differently.  Otherwise, Osborne will not be the last caucus member to defect. 
There is another aspect to this story that has little to do now with Premier Dunderdale.  Given that only one seat keeps the NDP from having equal status with the Liberals in the House of Assembly, the question is both obvious and important: in which opposition party will Osborne be comfortable? 

A subject for another day.