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Crosbie says N.L. Tories plot self-defeat

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It's not every day a former lieutenant-governor accuses a former premier of secretly orchestrating the selection of a successor who has yet to take office. It's rarer still that everyone involved in this exercise in finger-pointing and denial belongs to the same political party.

Welcome to politics, Newfoundland-and-Labrador-style.

The source of the complaint is former federal cabinet minister John Crosbie, who was the Queen's representative in St. John's until last year. He's known for speaking his mind and that's what he did at a recent event honouring Ray Guy -- a revered journalist who tangled with then-premier Joey Smallwood in the 1960s -- to complain of "skullduggery" afoot on today's political scene.

"One of our major parties... can't even organize a leadership convention," he groused. The ruling Progressive Conservatives, Crosbie's party, launched a leadership race to replace Kathy Dunderdale, who resigned in January, but it fizzled from a three-way race to a coronation.

Corner Brook businessman Frank Coleman, the last man standing, will jump from the boardroom to the premier's office without being elected to any office, the PC leadership included.

Crosbie, 83, whose political career dates to the days when Ray Guy was skewering Smallwood's government, is incensed that no one in the PC caucus or cabinet sought the leadership.

"They're all afraid to run," he said, before alluding to his own failed bids to lead the Newfoundland Liberals (before he switched parties in 1969) and the federal PCs. "When I was around and I had a chance to run for the leadership, I ran for the God damn leadership."

In followup media interviews, Crosbie revealed who he believes is behind Coleman's easy win -- former premier Danny Williams.

"There's nobody else who's in any position to be exerting that influence," he told the St. John's Telegram, which described Crosbie's outburst as a "rant." Williams, he told the CBC, exerted "a lot of influence... anybody else who wanted to run, pressure was put on them not to run."

Williams, who resigned as premier in 2010 after almost single-handedly lifting Newfoundland out of its have-not-province rut, denies meddling in the leadership contest. He insists he encouraged former cabinet and caucus colleagues and others to run, including Crosbie's son Ches, a St. John's lawyer.

But when a leadership race was still underway, Williams made it clear he did not want to see the first declared candidate, party outsider and fish-plant operator Bill Barry, become the next premier. Barry, whose scathing criticism of government policies won him few Tory friends, withdrew in mid-April, saying "the fix was in." (Party officials had earlier disqualified the third candidate, retired naval officer Wayne Bennett, for sending tweets deemed discriminatory.)

The attention now shifts to Coleman, who has earned kudos as head of a group of companies that operates grocery and other retail stores and a highway-construction firm. While he won't replace interim Premier Tom Marshall until July, his transition to political life has been far from smooth.

His wife and some of his children took part in an annual pro-life rally (Coleman has joined them in the past), forcing the next premier to assure Newfoundlanders he has no intention of limiting access to abortions. Days after he resigned as a director of his family's construction company, the firm was allowed to break a government paving contract without penalty.

And Coleman is clearly uncomfortable with the scrutiny that comes with public office. He refuses to reveal his birthdate, of all things, citing privacy concerns (he was born some time in 1953, so he's either 60 or 61 years old).

By law, Coleman must call an election within a year, and the prospects of the PCs winning a fourth term are fading. The Liberals under new Leader Dwight Ball enjoy a 20-point lead in public opinion polls and won a narrow victory in an April byelection to replace Dunderdale.

Coleman may still have time to get the Tories on track, but it's hard to argue with John Crosbie's typically blunt assessment of what lies ahead. The Liberals, he noted last week, can sit back and wait for their chance to seize power "because the other main party is committing hari-kiri."


Dean Jobb, an associate professor in the School of Journalism at the University of King's College in Halifax, is the Winnipeg Free Press East Coast correspondent.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 9, 2014 A9

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