Can Rodney recover? (June 14, 2007)

Can Rodney recover?

CBC Radio’s As It Happens was playing in the background in our kitchen Monday evening as my wife and I went about the clattering, chattering routine of preparing supper.

“Atlantic Accord…” the distractingly insistent, disembodied voice declared over the din. “Broken promise…” “Unfair…” “Nova Scotians expect…” “Get loud…”

“Who’s that speaking?” my wife asked.

”That’s our premier,” I answered. I almost didn’t recognize the new timber-like timbre in his voice either, but I’d heard the announcer introduce him.

“Rodney?” she said, surprised. “When did he find his backbone?”

She’s not the only one asking that question.

Although not as stunningly, shockingly surprising as the final scene of the last episode of the Sopranos Sunday night, Rodney MacDonald’s sudden, Saul-like conversion to reality that same weekend — on what had been his own smiley-faced, what-me-worry, on-message, autonomic path to political oblivion — was almost as dramatic. And it has the potential to change the province’s political dynamic.

It is true, of course, that MacDonald’s decision to publicly break off the going-nowhere negotiations with Ottawa over the Atlantic Accord qualifies as one of those barely-better-late-than-never buzzer-beater baskets.

And it is true too that MacDonald wasn’t actually leading when he lashed out at Ottawa. He was following the well-plowed — and praised — footsteps of newly independent federal MP Bill Casey. (As we bask in the warm glow of Rodney’s finest hour, don’t forget that a few days earlier Rodney had been pressuring Casey to vote for the budget that gutted the same Accord he now vows to defend.)

And it is — perhaps most importantly — true that there are all sorts of ways in which Rodney, being Rodney, can still blow it.


Credit where it is due.

MacDonald’s more than creditable performance this week finally offers his beleaguered Tory supporters their first faint glimmer of hope in almost a year that they could, just possibly, win the next provincial election.

After the Liberals’ recent choice of Stephen MacNeil as their new leader, the Tories’ electoral hopes seemed to flip to black faster than Tony Soprano’s face. If MacNeil, who exudes a kind of calm competence and political sure-footedness, could not vault past the NDP to unseat the Tories, then surely the ever-patient, equally competent and politically astute Darrell Dexter and his no-longer socialist hordes would finally be rewarded for years of loyal opposition.

In either case, Rodney would be toast and the Tories possibly relegated to the third-party in Nova Scotia’s unpredictable three-party political circus.

The knock on Rodney, almost from the day he won the leadership, was that… well… he was just not up to the job. He’s an affable, glad-handing, fresh-faced good old boy, highway-paver type who’s not smart enough or even (a la John Buchanan) savvy enough to run a province.

Until recently, Rodney has lived down to that reputation. It wasn’t just the gaffes — Ernie Fage, Heather Foley Melvin, Sunday shopping et al — though they didn’t help. The real problem was that Rodney often seemed not to grasp the complexities of the issues he was dealing with, so he was forced to fall back on cliché and mindless message-track responses.

That hasn’t been the case with the Atlantic Accord, where our Rodney has more than held his intellectual, strategic own, not only with journalists but also with vicious, infighting feds like Finance Minister Jim Flaherty.

Some observers who read the political tea leaves more rigorously than me insist that Rodney’s handling of the Accord file isn’t quite as new as it seems to me, that Rodney has indeed been belatedly growing into his job.

They point to his handling of the health care workers’ right to strike. Even if you disagree with his plan to take it away (and I for one think it’s a facile attempt to divert attention from the real health care crises), the fact is he took the lead on that issue too. And sounded as if he’d actually read the file.

The irony in all of this is that Rodney’s best hope to solidify his political gains from the Accord issue now is to fail to win a deal with Ottawa. The only deal that will seem like victory is restoration of the pre-budget status quo. And that’s not going to happen, so whatever happens — except defeat itself — will smell like defeat. And Rodney’s brief spike in popularity will turn out to have been nothing more than that.

Sometimes you only win by losing.

Stephen Kimber is the Rogers Communication Chair in Journalism at the University of King’s College. His column, “Kimber’s Nova Scotia,” appears in the Sunday Daily News.

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