ST. JOHN’S, N.L. – There was vice-regal pomp but something less than the usual air of celebration Friday as Paul Davis became Newfoundland and Labrador’s 12th premier.
The 53-year-old former police officer began his swearing-in speech by paying tribute to an 11-year-old boy who was stabbed at an athletic field Thursday night. It happened near the Topsail district that Davis serves southwest of St. John’s.
He rushed to the chaotic scene where many of his constituents were frantic after the young player was stabbed at a soccer skills clinic. A 19-year-old man faces charges including attempted murder.
“We’re all left to wonder why, and how things like this could happen in what is otherwise a peaceful community,” Davis said in his speech.
He later told reporters that one of his first moves will be to strike an advisory committee of legal, corrections and mental health experts to explore what he called the new face of crime.
Many of the traumatized kids on that soccer pitch Thursday night in Conception Bay South were similarly hustled to safety less than a year ago, he said. A double-murder suicide that involved two shootings at a local shopping plaza and health clinic rocked the community of 25,000 last October.
“Why is it that these types of things are happening now? We need to understand that.”
Davis became the leader of the governing Tories at a convention two weeks ago. He served in cabinet most recently as health minister before stepping down to seek the top job.
He replaces Tom Marshall, who is retiring. Marshall took over from Kathy Dunderdale who quit in January amid questions about her leadership.
Davis defeated two other former cabinet ministers, Steve Kent and John Ottenheimer, and must call a general election within a year under provincial law.
First, Davis faces a long list of other tasks starting with the introduction of his new cabinet early next week.
Then begins the much discussed effort to rebuild a party that has governed in majority power since 2003 but has seen its approval ratings plummet. The Tories have also lost four straight byelections to the Opposition Liberals — three of them in ridings that were held by senior cabinet ministers, including Dunderdale.
“We need to get better organized, there’s no doubt about it, and we have to change our strategies in byelections to be successful,” Davis said.
Kent, who was out of the province Friday, did not attend the swearing-in ceremony. Nor did Ottenheimer, whose delegates were everything from miffed to openly furious at the leadership convention when Kent threw his support behind Davis after losing on the first ballot.
“I do hear that from time to time, there’s no denying that,” Ottenheimer said in an interview Friday when asked if there’s lingering anger among party members.
“But as a candidate, I have to accept the fact that this was a possibility and these conventions very often go that way.”
Ottenheimer said he’ll still support the party but hasn’t decided if he’ll run in the next general election.
Davis was coy about timing — “Within the next 12 months” — but said he won’t go to the polls this fall. He said the federal election set for the fall of 2015 could affect when the provincial vote happens but offered no other hints.
Political scientist Chris Dunn of Memorial University of Newfoundland attended the Tory leadership weekend earlier this month. He said he was struck by what it didn’t achieve.
“You had an overall lack of bounce from the convention that needed to be there.”
It didn’t help that there was no overwhelming winner, Dunn said in an interview.
Davis, on the third ballot, won 351 votes compared to Ottenheimer’s 326 after a mind-boggling virtual tie on the second ballot that left delegates arguing over the party’s constitutional meaning of “absolute majority.”
Still, Dunn said it’s not too late for the Progressive Conservatives to regroup from what he described as a horrible year.
“I don’t think things are as black as many observers think. But they’re pretty black.”