Penashue reflects on his time as Labrador’s Conservative MP
© Bonnie Learning photo
Peter Penashue says he hold fond memories of being Labrador’s MP, albeit for a just over two years. He says he is adjusting into his ‘new life’ — a much quieter and less hectic one than when he represented Labrador at the cabinet table in Ottawa.
Three months after his by-election defeat to Yvonne Jones, former PC cabinet minister and Labrador MP, Peter Penashue, says he doesn’t know what his next career move will be, or whether he will venture into the world of politics again.
“(I’m) trying to ease my way into my new life,” he said in an exclusive interview with The Labradorian. “As you can imagine, two years (as MP) is a very hectic, very busy life as a federal cabinet minister. So I’m just taking some time off to enjoy the summer.”
Penashue said his life has certainly changed since the by-election.
“I’ve…been through — what I would refer to — as ‘information withdrawal,’” he chuckled. “Because when you’re an MP and cabinet minister, you certainly have a lot of access to information…then, suddenly, the next day it stops. You don’t have access to that information anymore. Certainly that’s been a big change.”
In his exclusive interview with the Labradorian, Penashue says he respects the decision of Labrador voters to elect Yvonne Jones in the May by-election. But Penashue didn’t hide his opinion that Labrador is now at a strategic disadvantage with a Liberal MP in Ottawa.
“There’s no question I was disappointed with the decision of Labradorians,” says Penashue. “I think we had it really good. We were able to deal with issues that concerned Labradorians and accomplished a lot in the last two years and certainly put us on the map.
“Nowadays, you don’t hear about Labrador and I’m certain it’s not discussed around the (cabinet) table as it once was,” he continued. “So there’s a lot of downside to the decision that we made as Labradorians. But that’s the decision that we made and we have to accept that.”
Penashue’s two years in office were very atypical in many regards. When he was elected in 2011, it was considered a major upset over incumbent Todd Russell, who was the Liberal MP for Labrador.
Penashue’s election win was dramatic. The difference between victory and defeat was less than 100 votes. And it was the first time in decades that Labradorians didn’t elect a Liberal in a Federal election.
Still, his time spent in Ottawa is something in which Penashue is very proud. He believes he accomplished a lot for Labradorians in his two years, such as obtaining federal funding for the Trans Labrador Highway; getting broadband internet into the region; encouraging growth of Labrador’s mining industry; and making sure that 5 Wing Goose Bay was discussed at the cabinet table.
Despite his belief he did a lot of good while in office, in March 2013 Penashue resigned as Labrador MP amid controversy over some of the donations his campaign received in 2011. Months before his resignation, it came to light that more than $45,000 of campaign contributions were illegal or ineligible.
Looking back at 2011 campaign, Penashue claims that he has taken responsibility for the ineligible donations.
Penashue entered the 2011 election as the PC candidate two weeks late. He still insists that his campaign manager and official agent, Reg Bowers, made honest mistakes during a rushed campaign, which led to the ineligible donations.
“We’re trying to raise money we’re trying to run a campaign at the same time...things were just absolutely hectic,” says Penashue.
“One thing led to another. My view is: I don’t think Reg had any intention for things to unfold the way they did. It’s just too many things going on at the same time.”
As soon as the public light was shone on the illegal donations, it became big news across the country. The media and the political opposition did not let the controversy die down. Questions surrounding the donations followed Penashue constantly between Labrador and Ottawa. Penashue believes some Liberal MPs went too far in attacking him in the House of Commons.
“It was frustrating…there’s no question about that. It was frustrating how I was treated in the House of Commons. I have very strong views of some of the Liberal MPs, such as Gerry Burns and Scott Andrews — they absolutely went too far…they became bullies.”
But public scrutiny can often be worse than any criticism from fellow politicians. And there’s no doubt heavy pressure from the media and the public followed the donation controversy. Penashue claims he feels worse for what Reg Bowers went through over the publicity than for himself.
“It was an absolute mess. I felt really bad for Reg. I felt bad for his family…it was the worst outcome for an event like this.”
After Penashue resigned, and a by-election called, there was never any doubt that the campaign would be an uphill battle. Everywhere he went Penashue was sure to be reminded of why a new election was called in the first place. And by-elections, historically, do not go well for the returning candidate.
But Penashue admits he made some mistakes during his campaign. One of his blunders, in retrospect, was revealing his method for obtaining provincial funding for the Trans Labrador Highway.
Penashue claimed, in a campaign speech, that he withheld funding for a project on the Island portion of the province until the provincial Government agreed to fund half of an $80 million dollar Trans Labrador Highway project.
An investigation by The Labradorian later revealed that repairs to the Sir Robert Bond Bridge was the project that Penashue delayed.
Penashue anticipated being patted on the back by Labradorians for making a bold move to ensure the Trans Labrador Highway got funding for much needed upgrades. Penashue was surprised to find out how many Labradorians resented his method.
“There’s obviously issues that, probably, I mishandled,” admits Penashue. “One thing that I noticed from going door-to-door, is that my comments about holding a project in Newfoundland to advance the position of Labrador (were not well-received). I was surprised with how many people didn’t appreciate that.”
Penashue’s primary focus of his campaign was reminding Labradorians of what he accomplished in his two years in office and telling people that Labrador needs an MP who will be part of the government, not a member of the opposition.
Unfortunately for Penashue, 49 per cent of Labradorians voted for Yvonne Jones on May 13, ending his short career as Labrador MP and federal cabinet Minister.
But Penashue claims to still be loyal to the party and supports Stephen Harper as Prime Minister. He thinks despite optimism of a Liberal resurgence under Justin Trudeau, Canadians will still see a Conservative majority in 2015.
“I still believe in the Conservative Party and I’m still a member of the Conservative Party,” says Penashue.
Penashue says he will always be grateful to Prime Minister Harper for giving him a chance, despite some mistakes he made as a young man.
“I have a very colourful past…I drank quite a bit and I’ve also been in jail,” says Penashue, candidly.
“I walked in thinking I was going to be a regular MP…I was pleasantly shocked to find out I was going to be appointed to the cabinet.”
Despite the controversy Penashue faced during his two years in Ottawa, and losing the by-election after a dramatic campaign, Penashue still claims to hold fond memories of being Labrador’s MP.
“The experience has been wonderful, there’s no question about that. It’s equally been very difficult of the way politics is played. I certainly felt that I made a contribution to the national discussions. But I certainly did represent my constituents.”