Tom Marshall is to take over as the new premier of Newfoundland and Labrador Friday – as his governing but struggling Progressive Conservative party attempts a transition aimed at holding on to power in the next election.
Kathy Dunderdale triggered the transition with her sudden announcement earlier this week that she was stepping down as premier. She gave no reason for her decision, but recent polls show that she and her party are becoming increasingly unpopular among voters.
Her departure after more than three years in the top job raises questions about the tricky issue of political succession-planning. Handled clumsily, it can trip up a party in power, as evidenced at the federal level by Brian Mulroney to Kim Campbell or Jean Chretien to Paul Martin.
It may also provide some guidance to Stephen Harper as rumours swirl around as to who is in line to replace him and, more importantly, when, despite his assertions that he plans to run in the 2015 general election.
"One of the hallmarks of a governing party is how it manages the transition of power between one leader and the next," national public opinion pollster Nik Nanos said in an interview.
He characterizes Ms. Dunderdale's decision as "taking the fall for her party."
"She has decided to become personally accountable for problems in the province," he said, citing as an example the opposition over the Muskrat Falls hydroelectric project. She also ran into more trouble recently with her delay in addressing the issue of the rolling black-outs in the province, saying that it was not a "crisis" while most of the province was without power for days.
In her announcement, she took the high road: "The progress we have made is undeniable," she said, providing a long list of what she considered her accomplishments, including reducing the deficit, raising up infrastructure, shorter wait times for critical procedures, smaller class sizes and more jobs.
"Most importantly on every scale Newfoundlanders and Labradorians are better off today than when we started … Indeed we capped off 2013 leading the entire country in economic growth," she said.
Her decision to leave about mid-way through the government's mandate – an election that will likely take place before October 2015 – will give the PCs a chance to recalibrate.
The Progressive Conservatives have been in power since 2003 when Danny Williams became premier.
Although there is speculation about several MHAs as potential leadership candidates, there is a view, too, that the new leader should come from the outside the caucus. An outsider shows renewal and would not be associated with previous unpopular policies.
Newfoundland conservative Leo Power, a prominent businessman and fundraiser for the provincial Tories, is pushing this view. He argues this will provide real renewal for the party in terms of policy and even recruitment of new people. Otherwise, the party would struggle to differentiate itself.
The Liberals in Newfoundland and Labrador recently held a leadership convention, electing a sitting MHA, Dwight Ball, to the post. Right now, the Liberals are in first place in the polls – with 52 per cent of voter support, according to last month's Corporate Research Associates poll. The PCs are in second place with 29 per cent support.
All of this provides lessons for those on the national front. Mr. Nanos believes that the biggest test for the federal Conservatives will not be the next election – expected also in October 2015 – but the transition from a world of Stephen Harper to the next leader.
"Mismanaging the transition from one leader to the next is usually the signs of an opposition party, not a governing party," he says.
The Dunderdale resignation will have little significance on the federal Tory brand in Newfoundland and Labrador, says Mr. Nanos. However, he believes that it will draw some contrasts – "They (the Harper Tories) have to be more concerned about leadership symbolism that she represents in terms of taking responsibility and asserting that she has done a good job but saying it's time to move on."
Jane Taber is The Globe's Atlantic bureau chief.