Friday, January 14, 2011

A Different Act

A Different Act

Well, that didn’t take long. Less than a month after Danny Williams resigned as Premier, Kathy Dunderdale announced her intention to succeed him. Unless something utterly unexpected happens during the next week, Premier Dunderdale will lead the Tories into the next provincial election.

While The Telegram has called the PC leadership race a fait accompli, it looks like the Tories are changing brands as well as leaders. If the speed of Premier Dunderdale’s ascension is remarkable, the makeover in the government’s rhetoric is equally noteworthy. Before the ink dried on Williams’ resignation letter, the provincial government dropped its combative stance towards the Newfoundland and Labrador Medical Association. On 8 December, less than a week after Williams left office, CBC reported that Jerome Kennedy had softened his tone towards the NLMA. “I spent 20 years in a courtroom and oftentimes I had to admit I was wrong,” Kennedy told the House of Assembly. He continued, “If in fact I am wrong, that is something I can admit and accept again but at this point in time ... we are concentrating on trying to get a deal with the doctors, which is what the public wants.” Sure enough, within a couple of weeks the government managed to do something that it couldn’t do for over a year: negotiate settlements with the NLMA, as well as the fifteen striking NAPE workers at the Burin/Marystown Community Training and Employment Board.

This makeover hasn’t been limited to health care negotiations. When Premier Dunderdale stepped before the microphones to announce her intention to succeed Williams, she was flanked by only her daughter. With no hoopla or fanfare, the contrast with Williams’ style could not be more striking. Her pleasant, low-key news conference featured none of the aggression on which Williams habitually relied. Dunderdale acknowledged that while her government will follow Williams’ policies faithfully, she will be a “different act.” And if the early messages are any indication, her premiership will be a kinder, gentler version of Williams.

Rebranding offers Premier Dunderdale an opportunity to distinguish herself from Williams, but it also carries political risks. For a decade Danny Williams was the Tory brand in Newfoundland and Labrador. He dominated his party more than any other political leader since Joey Smallwood. In the wake of Williams’ resignation, there has been much talk of the pride and confidence that he instilled in his followers; however, throughout his political career, he also relied incessantly on enmity and vengeance. Williams himself addressed this legacy in his resignation speech: “You know, I laugh when critics and some reporters say that I’m nothing more than a fighter, someone always looking for a racket, never happy unless I’m taking someone on. Well, folks, I’m here to tell you today that those people are right.”

Danny Williams was able to capitalize on this image because anger sells politically. By jumping from one quarrel to the next, Williams’ Tories were able to set the political agenda, define the opposition, and manipulate public opinion with unprecedented success. Williams defined strength as belligerence; while the public may have wearied of the racket, it’s unclear whether voters will be receptive to a new style of Tory governance.

Premier Dunderdale faces a difficult choice. On the one hand, if she successfully rebrands the Tories as the party of reasonableness and accommodation, she risks losing a major part of the Williams legacy. Williams was able to exploit his persona as the fighting Newfoundlander to keep the opposition parties on the defensive; if Dunderdale abandons this modus operandi, she risks giving them the opportunity to rebrand themselves. If the new Premier decides not to pursue political feuds, she risks losing control over the province’s political agenda. And if it looks like she’s avoiding a fight, she risks appearing weak.

On the other hand, if she chooses to embrace Williams’ combative style, she risks losing legitimacy if she cannot carry it off. Danny Williams was able to get away with his endless bickering because he projected authenticity: he genuinely seemed to relish conflict and to dislike his enemies as much as he said he did. Unless Premier Dunderdale can find a way to create her own version of the fighting premier persona, she risks alienating the electorate if she mimics William’s acerbic style. If she begins to sound inauthentic, she will quickly lose popular support.

By calling herself a “different act,” Dunderdale has signalled that she’s well aware of the challenge of succeeding Danny Williams. The fact that no one else has yet decided to run for the PC leadership indicates that she is not the only Tory who understands how hard it will be to manage the Williams legacy.

Published in The Telegram, 8 January 2011. My thanks to Russell Wangersky and the editorial staff at The Telegram.

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