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Thursday 8 May 2014

BEGINNING OF THE END? TORY GOVERNMENT IN CRISIS

The Government’s unprecedented decision to cancel the Humber Valley Paving (HVP) Contract and release two Bonds, worth a total of $19 million, has placed Frank Coleman at the center of another political crisis. 


Another crisis? Yes. The first was a not-so-secret uprising in the Tory Caucus over his activist ‘pro-life’ stand and the revelation that his religious beliefs extend to protesting current laws on the public streets of Corner Brook.


That uprising has dissipated somewhat, though it has caused some to wonder if Mr. Coleman’s meeting with Tory MHA’s, on Wednesday, followed a summons from them. 


The Tory Caucus, which includes all Members of Cabinet, are increasingly discouraged that the Administration continues to be mired in crises. Scandal allegations expose a House of Assembly in which Tory MHAs are drained of enthusiasm.  Question Period has been all but hi-jacked by the HVP issue. With Premier Marshall having skipped off, leaving Opposition questions to a less than skilful Minister of Transportation and Works Minister, some Tory Members wonder if a dysfunctional Government can ever find resurrection. 
Frank Coleman was sold to them as the guy capable of raising the Government out of a political quagmire. Three years of attitude and ineptitude, under Kathy Dunderdale, are now stretching into a fourth; this one worse and with unimaginable consequences. 


It is one thing for a new leader to display insensitivity on a polarizing issue like abortion but the possibility of high level scandal in which the Cabinet is implicated, wittingly or otherwise, must now  cause them unparalleled grief.


While Marshall used the Cabinet Shuffle last week to shore up the back bench by awarding three Parliamentary Assistant positions and elevating one to the Cabinet, it has all the makings of a Band-Aid.


No one wants to be associated with allegations of corruption; it is a stench that follows politicians around long after they have left politics.  Most of them are fundamentally honest and hardworking; they have no wish to be associated with power brokers under suspicion of having subverted the public interest for their friends.


Then, too, the Tory Caucus knows that public servants, in the Minister’s Department, are troubled by the HVP deal.  Professional public servants are deeply upset that the Government’s interference in the HVP affair has destroyed the practice and the perception of equal treatment of all Tenders.
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Related Reading:      HVP BOND ISSUE: MAKINGS OF A SCANDAL
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Following his meeting with the Tory Caucus, Telegram Reporter James McLeod tweeted Coleman’s comment that he had no problem with the Auditor General (A-G) investigating the file.  Minister McGrath echoed the same sentiment to Debbie on CBC’s Here and Now.


A welcoming sentiment, however, is not the same as actually calling for an investigation; that Debbie did not directly ask the Minister for one is irritating.  But, then, Frank Coleman could have baldly stated “I want an investigation”. The Minister, with the Premier’s approval, would have complied. 


Little wonder the Caucus is in deep despair.  Nick McGrath has had to forgo the argument originally advanced that the $19 million of Bonds were handed back, pro bono, due to forest fires in late June, 2013.  He has admitted that HVP had already been given a one-year Contract extension on July 11, 2013 in consequence of those fires. 


The Opposition has not yet asked if the Department forgave HVP the penalties, referred to as “Liquidated Damages” (which can run into the tens of thousands of dollars), to cover the Government’s out-of-pocket costs due to that extension.   


Then you have Frank Coleman who says he knows nothing about anything after he sold his shares in HVP.  Yet, he disputes the Minister’s own words that he negotiated the Contract/Bond release with Coleman’s son, Gene.


As if that were not inconsistency enough, you have the Minister stating that he received a legal opinion on the affair but there is no paper trail on the $19 million transaction.


There is likely one or two Cabinet Ministers who know a legitimate legal opinion is provided in writing; one that is verbal amounts to a conversation. Some of those Ministers might wish Nick McGrath was still plying his trade as a rodent catcher instead of playing nuisance himself.


While the HVP issue demands a host of answers, I find two matters particularly critical right now.


The first relates to whether Frank Coleman, his family and associates benefited from the Minister’s release of Bonds worth $19 million.


We need to know if the assets of the man who is the incoming Premier helped secure those Bonds at the time the Minister released them.


The Opposition needs to ask: who was liable if the Bonds had been called?


They need to enquire: did the Minister say to his incoming boss: no you don’t have to put your hand in your pocket for $19 million?


We also need to know if that is why Frank Coleman opined to reporters, “…the Department acted perfectly”!


Then there is the matter that his son, Gene, and other family members are (or were) owners and/or Directors of the Company.  Is it not a fiction to suggest there was no personal benefit?    


The Minister did state he did not want to bankrupt HVP; the implication is that the Government should take the hit for the cost overruns HVP was either unwilling or unable to incur. Shouldn’t we know everyone who benefited from the Government’s largesse?


The other issue relates to Frank Coleman, not as businessman but as incoming Premier.


If he is to take the Tory Caucus out of their deep sense of despair and show the leadership demanded of high office shouldn't he move quickly to bring an end to the current acrimonious outpouring of anger and mistrust? 


All he needs to say to the Premier is this: ‘there shall be no questions of scandal hanging over my head…there will not be as much as a hint of wrongdoing that I, or my family, have benefited from high level political favors.  I will not accept the Office of Premier unless I have been cleared accordingly’. 


But Coleman is not saying anything of the sort.  He is telling the media any suggestion of conflict is “heinous”.  He is being either foolish or na├»ve.  The Caucus knows it. They wear it on their faces!   


It may be already too late to attempt survival but one should never underestimate politicians’ survival instincts.  Those more alert had better think fast.  The Caucus has often been a catalyst for change when leaders lack the talent or are distracted.


The elected Members know what they must do.


Churchill’s famous invocation may give them something to think about:


“Now this is not the end.


It is not even the beginning of the end.


But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”


The problem is, neither Dunderdale, Marshall nor Coleman have demonstrated as much political skill as might have been contained in one of Sir Winston’s hang nails.  


If the Caucus cannot figure out that what is at issue is not mere patronage but corruption on a grand scale, then, I suggest a serious modification to Sir Winston’s entreaty:


This is not the end of the beginning….but the beginning of the end.