POLITICS
09/07/2014 12:00 EDT | Updated 11/07/2014 05:59 EST

Next Newfoundland And Labrador Tory Leader Faces Tough Fight

CP
ST. JOHN'S, N.L. - A string of lost byelections, grim poll numbers and quitting cabinet ministers.

It's tough to put a shine on the job facing the next leader of the governing Progressive Conservatives in Newfoundland and Labrador.

A once formidable juggernaut under former premier Danny Williams, the party has faltered since he suddenly resigned with no succession plan in 2010 to focus on business interests.

The winner of one of the most challenging posts in Canadian politics will be chosen at a delegated convention in St. John's on Saturday.

All three candidates — Paul Davis, Steve Kent and John Ottenheimer — are political veterans who say they can correct course in time for the next election. It must be called under provincial law within a year of the new leader's swearing-in as premier.

But even the most vocal Tory supporters have doubts this ship can turn.

"The Titanic has a better chance of not hitting an iceberg," is how Conservative commentator Tim Powers, a Newfoundlander, sums up the party's odds of a comeback.

Still, there's hope in recent electoral surprises, he said.

"In British Columbia and Alberta the incumbents had been written off.

"A lot can change in a year."

Davis, a 53-year-old former police officer and spokesman for the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary, is counting on it. The former health minister was diagnosed in 2011 with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma but has since recovered.

He's realistic about the political battle ahead if he wins.

"We have a huge amount of work to do," he said in an interview.

"We've got to change how we've been doing business and we've got to make sure the public understands who we are and what we're about."

The Tories have won three straight majority mandates since 2003 but have been plagued in recent years by a persistent image of closed-door arrogance. Former premier Kathy Dunderdale, who became the uncontested replacement for Williams before winning re-election in 2011, fended off intense criticism for restricting access to government information.

Other sore points, including escalating costs for the $8.5-billion Muskrat Falls hydro project in Labrador, were topped last January when Dunderdale refused to call widespread power failures a "crisis."

She resigned Jan. 24 amid growing questions about her leadership. Her departure set off a bizarre first leadership contest that attracted not one government member or Progressive Conservative insider.

All three neophyte candidates, including favoured Corner Brook businessman Frank Coleman, ultimately dropped out and the process started anew in July.

"Usually a leadership campaign is good for a party," Davis said. "Having a false start ... hasn't done us any good at all."

On Thursday, resignation announcements from Finance Minister Charlene Johnson and Justice Minister Terry French for personal reasons came after four straight byelection losses. Those defeats to the surging Opposition Liberals included three districts previously held by cabinet ministers, including Dunderdale.

Premier Tom Marshall is also set to retire after staying on through the leadership struggles.

Byelections typically cost at least $100,000 depending on the district, according to Elections Newfoundland and Labrador.

But all three candidates have rebuffed calls for an early general election, saying the party needs time to regroup.

Ottenheimer, 61, is a veteran of several cabinet portfolios who was health minister in 2005 amidst a scandal over botched breast cancer tests. He left politics in 2007 and later served as chairman of Newfoundland and Labrador Hydro.

"We have to do a lot more in terms of our ability to relate with the public," he said in an interview. "We've learned the hard way: the public will not tolerate that sense of not being a part of the political process."

Kent, 36, is a career politician first elected to Mount Pearl city council near St. John's at 19. The former municipal affairs minister, a strident defender of his government's record, said it's not too late to turn its fortunes around.

"There are issues and situations that we could have undoubtedly handled better," Kent said in an interview.

"The poll numbers are no big surprise to me. People want something different and I believe I can lead the change that's required."

Kelly Blidook, a political scientist at Memorial University of Newfoundland, said the Tories have polled so badly for so long that any real uptick may require a drastic development.

"Some kind of act of God or something that really kind of changes the landscape that they probably won't have the power to do themselves.

"At this point it's highly unlikely the new leader will make a difference," he said. "This is a really big gap."

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