PLP contest may come down to question of integrity, not policy
Comedian and former US Democratic senator Al Franken often recounts a joke made by Republican senator Lindsey Graham.
Mr Franken tells it like this: "Lindsey Graham is hilarious.
“For instance, when he was running like 15 out of 17 in the Republican primaries [in 2016], we were in the bathroom and I said, ‘Lindsey, if I were voting in the Republican primaries, I’d vote for you.’ And without hesitation, he said, ‘That’s my problem’.”
Graham really did think it was a problem. Concerned that the Republican Party was moving away from him, he rapidly moved from being the Democrats’ favourite Republican to an unabashed supporter of Donald Trump and was rewarded with re-election from the ultraconservative state of South Carolina.
There are signs that supporters of David Burt, the Premier, are trying to insinuate a similar “problem” for Curtis Dickinson, who is challenging Mr Burt for the leadership of the Progressive Labour Party.
In this case, the suggestion is that because Mr Dickinson is popular with One Bermuda Alliance politicians and has received support from some conservatives, there must be something suspect about him.
There is another insinuation: that Mr Dickinson is a Johnny-come-lately who has not really earned his political stripes, unlike Mr Burt, who has spent two decades working his way up the ranks of the party.
These are curious approaches because they attempt to turn what might be seen as strengths of Mr Dickinson into weaknesses.
In other words, what could be a strength — cross-appeal and the ability to broaden the base of the PLP — is being turned into a weakness. That’s particularly ironic when much of the success of the 2020 election came because traditional OBA supporters voted for the PLP.
This is not a new argument: tensions between zealous true believers and pragmatic bridge builders are as old as political parties. But it is vanishingly rare for parties led from the extreme to be successful. Political leaders in the Centre tend to be more successful, although the corollary is that they must move more slowly, to the frustration of their political bases.
The argument that Mr Dickinson is an unknown quantity whose values are a mystery is equally fallacious. After all, it was Mr Burt himself who brought Mr Dickinson into government and made him finance minister. If Mr Burt does not know where Mr Dickinson stands, then it raises questions about his vetting process.
But the underlying claim again is that Mr Dickinson is too conservative for an allegedly progressive party.
However, Mr Dickinson’s conservatism is hardly a secret. What these angles of attack suggest is that Mr Burt is more worried by this challenge than he is letting on, and more worried the best campaigner of his generation should be.
In part, it is because before Mr Dickinson came along, Mr Burt occupied a similar place in the PLP. While he has been artful in occasionally throwing out populist red meat to satisfy the PLP base, his actual policies have been more focused on business development and economic growth.
That much of this has been relatively unsuccessful, especially on cryptocurrencies, it remains true that both Mr Burt and Mr Dickinson are on the right wing of the PLP, although Mr Dickinson may be the more conservative of the two.
But the Burt camp’s approach is also notable for what it does not tackle: Mr Dickinson’s reputation for probity and standing on principle.
For all of Mr Burt’s efforts to smear Mr Dickinson over the Gencom deal, the public perception remains that Mr Dickinson resigned on principle and to defend the public purse when Mr Burt was intent on opening it wide.
While there should be debates over just how far any government should go in supporting private developments — and Mr Burt in opposition was eloquent on that topic when opposing the Morgan’s Point guarantee — he would have trouble winning a vote if this became a contest over which of the candidates is more principled and trustworthy.
That is because Mr Burt has a history of not always making statements that are consistent with the truth. That Renée Ming, the former national security minister, is challenging Walter Roban in the same delegates conference will be a constant reminder of that. It may seem a small thing, but Mr Burt and Ms Ming not being able to agree on whether she resigned by choice or that he fired her throws his integrity into doubt, never mind the pettiness of not letting her leave office with her dignity intact.
In the end, it is likely that this contest for the PLP leadership and therefore the premiership will be decided less over questions of policy and more on questions of character and trust.
If that is a debate in which Mr Dickinson would seem to have the upper hand, then it also needs to be remembered that party delegates — as it is they and not the general voting population who decide whether Mr Burt carries on as premier — will look to issues other than integrity.
That Mr Burt led the PLP to an historic election victory that was more avalanche than landslide will be in their minds, as it should be. Mr Burt is an accomplished campaigner and political tactician, whereas Mr Dickinson is less smooth and less comfortable in front of the cameras.
Mr Burt also has a grip on the hierarchy of his party, even if opposition to him is growing and people increasingly resent what is perceived as an arrogant attitude.
But it is also true to say that if all you can rely on is that ability to win elections, then at some point this alone is not enough. History is replete with great campaigners who were eventually brought low because in the end that was all they were — politicians and not statesmen.