An unsettling state of affairs is developing in Newfoundland and Labrador, a province known for spawning big political personalities who play politics like a blood sport.
The governing Progressive Conservative Party is having a terrible time attracting candidates to run for its leadership, even though the winner automatically gets the top prize – premier – without even having to face the electorate.
Some observers are blaming public opinion polls that show the Liberals ahead for scaring off potential candidates, saying that winning the leadership would be like taking over as captain of the Titanic. An election is scheduled for next year – and the expectation is the Tories will go down.
Others blame Danny Williams, the larger-than-life former PC leader and premier, who retired in 2010 but is still revered for taking on Stephen Harper, bringing down the Canadian flag in protest and always putting his people first.
How do you follow that act?
“The PC party was recreated in the image of Danny Williams,” says native son and political satirist Rick Mercer. “It’s like he’s the lead singer of a really great band leaving … who is going to replace the lead singer? That rarely works.”
The trouble started in January with the surprise resignation of premier Kathy Dunderdale, who had been struggling with the dropping polls and criticism of her leadership style. No one wanted to replace her.
Finally, businessman Frank Coleman stepped forward. He was the lone candidate, poised to become premier at the July 5 leadership convention until he suddenly dropped out last week, citing a family matter.
The convention had to be postponed until the middle of September. And, so far, there is only one candidate, John Ottenheimer, a St. John’s lawyer, former MHA and cabinet minister.
He filed his papers this week, and says he’s “hopeful” he’ll have some competition – but time is running out before the July 7 deadline for nominations.
“I really hope there are more,” he says. “I think the party is best served when we have a number of people for the convention in September.”
He’s not intimidated by the polls, pointing to electoral turnarounds in British Columbia, Alberta and most recently in Ontario as evidence his party can still win next year. He said he was about to seek the leadership the last time around but believed Mr. Coleman had it sewn up.
For him, this long, drawn-out process has been “awkward” and unhelpful for the province and party – the sooner the leadership and premiership is decided, the better it will be for Newfoundland and Labrador, he says.
Memorial University political science professor Stephen Tomblin, characterize the situation as “pathetic” and “sad for democracy.”
“The fact that they [politicians] are not putting their hat in the ring means that it’s all about them,” says Prof. Tomblin. “I think that’s really sad that people don’t want to get into politics because they aren’t going to get some immediate reward or that it’s hard work. It should be hard work.”
Businessman John Steele, president of Steele Communications and chairman of Newfoundland radio station VOCM, says politics is “vicious” in his province and being premier is a tough job.
That only one person has so far come forward to run does not reflect badly on the province, he says, but on the PC party. “You always want to see people offering,” Mr. Steele says.
There are whispers that Mr. Williams, the former premier, is still influential, pulling strings behind the scenes. Mr. Ottenheimer says he hasn’t heard them, but Paddy Daly, host of VOCM’s Open Line, hears from his listeners that the leadership contest is not to be trusted. “That’s what the public think, that Danny is too involved and people are rebelling against it.” Mr. Williams could not be reached for comment - but his brother, Tom, a St. John’s lawyer and co-chair of the convention, says the former premier is “out of town now and planning on being out for most of the summer.” “So, I don’t think you’ll see a lot of involvement [from him],” says Tom Williams.
For Mark Critch, Newfoundland comedian and star of This Hour Has 22 Minutes, it’s about finding someone the province can get behind – a “hero or heroine.” He jokes that Newfoundlanders don’t care as much for a good premier as they do for a good quote. “I want something to talk about. I want somebody to haul down a flag or open a rubber-boot factory. Do something.”