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Dunderdale in hard place on The Rock

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HALIFAX -- Two years is a long time in politics -- long enough, as Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Kathy Dunderdale has discovered, to go from first to worst.

Pollster Angus Reid regularly asks Canadians what they think of their provincial leaders. Dunderdale's approval rating stands at 26 per cent, the lowest in the country.

Back in 2011, after she was chosen to fill the big shoes of the revered Danny Williams and just before she led the Progressive Conservatives to a resounding victory and a third mandate, Angus Reid pegged her approval rating at 58 per cent, second only to Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall.

Wall remains in top spot, according to the June update, while Dunderdale is keeping company with the unpopular likes of Quebec's Pauline Marois and David Alward of New Brunswick.

What happened?

A bad-news budget, for starters. Dunderdale's finance minister, Jerome Kennedy, served an unappetizing helping of fiscal reality in a March budget that eliminated 1,200 government jobs, raised a slate of taxes and fees and was still more than a half-billion dollars short of being in the black.

Lower oil prices were to blame -- or, to be precise, the government's optimistic projection that crude would fetch $124 a barrel in 2012. The average price of Brent crude for the year was under $112 and the shortfall in royalties expected from offshore wells left Kennedy scrambling to cut costs.

The price of oil may be beyond the control of Dunderdale's government, but the sudden reversal in fortune came as a shock in a province proud to have escaped the ranks of the "have-nots" and accustomed to the record surpluses of the Williams era.

The PCs hold 36 of the 48 seats in the legislature, but their popularity has tanked. An opinion poll conducted by Halifax-based Corporate Research Associates and released last month placed the government dead last, with the support of just over a quarter of decided voters surveyed. The NDP, with five seats in the legislature, has become a factor in Newfoundland politics for the first time and sits in first place as the choice of 37 per cent of decided voters. Leader Lorraine Michael is even more popular than her party -- her approval rating was almost as high as Brad Wall's, the Angus Reid survey found.

The momentum, though, is with the Liberals, who have six seats, official Opposition status and have seen their support jump from 22 to 36 per cent since the last Corporate Research poll in February. Those numbers are translating into success at the polls. Liberal Yvonne Jones knocked off former federal cabinet minister Peter Penashue in May's Labrador byelection, and just last week the party easily reclaimed Jones' old riding in a provincial byelection.

All this for a party that has gone through five leaders since its defeat in 2003 and is looking for its sixth. The Liberals will hold a leadership convention in the fall and the winner finally has a shot at the premiership.

The frontrunner is interim leader Dwight Ball, a Deer Lake pharmacist first elected in 2007. Angus Reid pegs him as one of the top opposition leaders in the country, with a 53 per cent approval rating. His most serious rival may be respected St. John's businesswoman Cathy Bennett, who's considering a run at the job but has been accused of being too cosy with the Tories during the Liberals' lean years.

Dunderdale, meanwhile, has until fall 2015 -- a fixed-date election is set for mid-October -- to claw her way back to the top. Her government projects a $230-million surplus by then, and she's hoping fiscal prudence now will pay off in the future. A bigger, long-term gamble is the controversial, $7.5-billion Muskrat Falls hydro project, which is slated to begin generating power in 2017.

After last week's byelection loss, she released a statement acknowledging the budget cuts have taken a toll on her popularity.

The "right decisions are not often the popular ones," she said, but "having the courage of your convictions and sticking with those decisions for the betterment of your people is the sign of a government with a vision."

That's as good a definition of strong, principled leadership as any, but Newfoundlanders and Labradorians clearly want change. Dunderdale's administration is being assailed in the media as aloof, secretive and a bit desperate, resorting at times to blaming today's problems on the long-ago mistakes and policies of the Liberals.

Dunderdale's biggest problem is something impossible to change -- she's not Danny Williams. Her predecessor's business pursuits and life after politics rated a four-page feature in the current issue of Maclean's magazine, as if anyone needed to be reminded of the not-so-old good old days.

 

Dean Jobb, the Winnipeg Free Press East Coast correspondent, teaches journalism at the University of King's College in Halifax.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 3, 2013 A11

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