ST. JOHN’S, N.L. — After he was sworn in Friday as premier of Newfoundland and Labrador following a week of political turmoil, Tom Marshall summed it all up in a word: “Wow.”
The affable finance minister and senior statesman of the Progressive Conservative government drew laughs as he revealed how he first learned he was to take the helm.
Former premier Kathy Dunderdale called him into her office Tuesday night to say she was stepping down and that the Tory caucus had tapped him as interim party leader, he said.
Reports of Dunderdale’s imminent departure and Marshall’s ascension were already spreading on social media before he got home, he recalled.
“I went home that night and my daughter came to me and she said: ’Dad? Are you premier?”’
Marshall praised Dunderdale, the province’s first female premier, as one of the most dedicated and compassionate people he has worked alongside. She was not at the ceremony to hear it.
Dunderdale announced Wednesday that she was quitting after a punishing year of leadership doubts and dismal approval ratings.
Marshall, 67, quoted Russian poet Boris Pasternak in his swearing-in speech.
“Surprise is the greatest gift which life can grant us,” he said. “But to be brutally frank, surprise is hardly strong enough a word to describe my reaction when Premier Kathy Dunderdale asked me earlier this week to take on this significant responsibility today.”
Marshall, the province’s first Jewish premier, said he was humbled. And he used a passage from Deuteronomy in the Old Testament to convey how he hopes to leave his mark in the few months before a Tory leadership convention is expected.
“Justice shall you pursue,” he said of the standard set by Moses for all who would serve in public office.
“It is therefore very important to me that all Newfoundlanders and Labradorians shall share fully and fairly in the benefits of our newfound prosperity and have a voice in the way it is distributed.”
Marshall said the first order of business is to install a new finance minister in a cabinet shuffle next week. Planning for the next budget is underway and legislation is being prepared for a spring session starting in March, he said.
He has indicated he’ll only be premier for three or four months, suggesting a leadership convention this spring which, under provincial law, must trigger an election within 12 months. The next vote had been set for October 2015 before Dunderdale’s early exit.
Marshall said the exact timetable is still being worked out, and he repeatedly emphasized that his government wants to hear from voters and is listening.
Dunderdale’s departure was increasingly rumoured but a major flashpoint was public criticism over her handling of rolling power outages that at one point left 190,000 customers without heat and lights earlier this month. Many residents were irate that she refused to call the hydro failure a crisis.
Dunderdale, 61, remains a member of the legislature for now, though Marshall has said she will move on before the next election.
Marshall has also confirmed he will not run again. He practised law before entering politics in October 2003 and has held several cabinet portfolios.
The Tories have 34 seats in the legislature, the Liberals nine and the NDP three. There are two Independents.
Names circulating of those who might run for the Tory leadership include Natural Resources Minister Derrick Dalley, Justice Minister Darin King and Child, Youth and Family Services Minister Paul Davis.
Anyone in cabinet running for the top job will have to step aside from those duties during the leadership race, Marshall said Friday.
Corner Brook businessman and fishery magnate Bill Barry, CEO of Barry Group Inc., confirmed Friday to the Western Star that he is considering running.
And Tim Powers, a Conservative commentator, Ottawa lobbyist and vice-chairman of Summa Strategies, is also seen as a contender.
“I am listening, but haven’t made a decision either way,” he said in an email Friday. “We’ll see what the party decides in the coming days and then I hope to have more to say.”