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Is Newfoundland a barometer for Manitoba?

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HALIFAX -- Newfoundland and Labrador is looking for a new premier. The pay's good and there are the usual perks, but the ruling Progressive Conservatives have struggled to find anyone willing to apply for what seems certain to be a short-term job.

Three men are in the race to replace Kathy Dunderdale as P.C. leader, and two filed nomination papers only hours before last Friday's deadline. Not a single cabinet minister or member of the house of assembly was willing to take the plunge; when the winner is chosen in July, he will catapult into the premier's office without serving a single day as an elected representative at the provincial level.

This sorry state of affairs was triggered by Dunderdale's abrupt resignation in January, after downplaying the severity of rolling blackouts that left thousands of Newfoundlanders without power in freezing weather. It was the last straw for a leader whose approval ratings had sunk so low she was the least-popular premier in the country.

She had succeeded the immensely popular Danny Williams in 2010 and led the Tories to a third term with a solid majority. She oversaw the federal loan guarantee and financing needed to begin building the multibillion-dollar Muskrat Falls hydroelectric project in Labrador, which will atone in part for the notorious power giveaway at Churchill Falls.

But deficit budgets and service cuts were her undoing. A poll released this month pegs the Liberals under new leader Dwight Ball as the choice of more than half of respondents, while the Tories, well out front just a year ago, sit at 33 per cent.

Bill Barry, operator of a Corner Brook-based seafood export empire that operates 11 fish processing plants, may inherit this mess. He was the first to declare his candidacy and that has cast him as the frontrunner -- and as a polarizing figure.

John Crosbie, a wily political veteran, describes Barry as "a man of character, experience, learning and fearlessness." But Barry's promise to break from past policies -- he has questioned the massive public investment in Muskrat Falls and mused about the private sector playing a bigger role in delivering health and education services -- has earned him a powerful enemy.

Williams, premier for seven years until he bowed out with sky-high approval ratings, says he refuses to back a candidate who "doesn't stand for anything that I support." He took particular offence to Barry's graphic observation that members of the provincial cabinet wouldn't know "a bucket of s-h-i-t" -- he spelled out the word -- "if you hauled it down over the heads."

It was hardly a statesmanlike remark and Williams' opinion still matters, even though he's now tending to his real estate, sports and other business interests.

There's speculation on The Rock that Williams favours rival candidate Frank Coleman, another Corner Brook businessman, who operates a chain of grocery and furniture stores.

The other contender, retired naval officer Wayne Bennett, is the only one of the three who has been elected to anything. He's a town councillor in the western Newfoundland community of Howley, but best known as former leader of the short-lived Newfoundland and Labrador First Party, which fielded a handful of candidates in the 2008 federal election.

The new premier will have little time to turn things around. By law, he must call an election within a year of being sworn in. Crosbie, a diehard Conservative, believes it's already too late.

"If a political party has been in office and won three elections, it is most unusual for them to win a fourth," the former federal cabinet minister wrote recently in the St. John's Telegram. "The public simply becomes jaded... and decides that it is time for a change."

What does all this mean for a party seeking a fifth term? The events unfolding in Newfoundland will sound awfully familiar to Manitobans. Premier Greg Selinger's approval rating sits in Dunderdale territory and Brian Pallister's Conservatives are well ahead in the polls. A balanced budget remains elusive and hydroelectric mega-projects are being touted as a way to help get things back on track.

Newfoundland's next election, in 2015, is shaping up as a barometer of what could be in store for the Manitoba election of 2016.


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 March 22, 2014 A17

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