Premier Kathy Dunderdale is deflecting a backlash over her handling of a major power failure in Newfoundland as political observers say she missed a much needed chance to shine.
Dunderdale said Tuesday she understands that people are fuming over four days of rolling blackouts caused by bitter cold, a blizzard, maintenance issues and equipment malfunctions.
People have pointedly noted on social media and radio call-in shows that she waited until two days after rolling blackouts started last Thursday to hold a news conference. When she did speak Sunday, she has been accused of initially downplaying a major system collapse by saying it was not a crisis.
The power failure at its peak Saturday affected 190,000 customers in a province of about 527,000 people.
Dunderdale said her ministers were available from the start and that she was working behind the scenes.
“Now, is the message being heard? Some people are mighty angry and upset and inconvenienced,” she told reporters Tuesday. “We’re getting the system back to normal as quickly as possible and we’ve ensured that people are as safe as we could make them in the meantime.”
Newfoundland Power said Tuesday that electricity had been restored to all but 50 residential customers. But the company was still urging conservation as another winter storm hit parts of the province with high winds, freezing rain and water buildup from melting snow.
Memorial University Newfoundland, the College of the North Atlantic and almost all schools on the island of Newfoundland will remain closed through Wednesday due to the disruptions.
There have been reports of nine cases of carbon monoxide poisoning in the province since Saturday, including one death.
Tim Powers, a Conservative commentator and vice-chairman of Summa Strategies in Ottawa, has spent hours on the air as a guest host for local radio station VOCM since the blackouts began.
“The Premier has not been doing well in the polls,” he said Tuesday in an interview. “I think circumstances like this one, there was an opportunity lost for the premier because you can get an uptick in support. You can have a general sense of positivity coming from the public when they feel that you’re leading when they think you should be leading.”
Dunderdale’s initial response was late and has been panned for hitting the wrong tone, Powers said.
Stephen Tomblin, a political scientist at Memorial, said he was surprised that even the Premier’s official Twitter feed was quiet from Dec. 23 until Jan. 4, two days after rolling blackouts began.
“There’s this sense that she doesn’t fully understand or appreciate some of the difficulties or problems that people are facing,” he said.
“Even Rob Ford took advantage to change the channel,” he said of the Toronto mayor’s response to a pre-Christmas ice storm that caused widespread blackouts.
Powers said Dunderdale is not without defenders, however.
“There are quite a few people I’ve also talked to who do think there’s a bit of a pile-on going on at the moment.”
Ern Howell, a Mount Pearl resident who says he has voted Liberal more often than not, said it’s unfair to blame Dunderdale.
“Some people might have had a crisis in their homes, but you can’t call it a provincial crisis,” said Howell, who works as a cab driver. “To make it a political issue is foolishness.”
Time will tell if what’s being called the Blizzard Blackout of 2014 will damage the Premier long-term.
Amanda Alvaro, a public relations adviser who founded Toronto-based Narrative PR, said Dunderdale missed a crucial chance to connect with voters.
“Crises can make or break a leader,” she said in an interview. “They’re one occasion where stand-out leadership, whether it’s good or bad, will be remembered. And how a leader performs can either win a heart share [of voter support] or it can be the final nail in the coffin.
“For the Premier, it may result in the latter.”