Courting the public
Politics has been a learning experience for Carbonear-Harbour Grace MHA Jerome Kennedy
From his days of sparring with prosecutors and judges as a seasoned courtroom lawyer, Jerome Kennedy learned how to dish it out.
Now, after three-and-a-half years in the political ring, the once feisty criminal defence lawyer has found out, in the larger court of public opinion, you also have to learn how to take it on the chin and roll with the punches.
The Carbonear-Harbour Grace MHA has taken his share of verbal jabs from all sides — the Opposition, open line show callers, writers of letters to the editor, columnists and editorial writers — not to mention the e-mails and calls he receives from mayors and other community leaders not entirely thrilled with some of the controversial calls he’s had to make that they feel have negatively impacted their communities.
And he has the battle scars to prove it.
The minister of Health and Community Services, who has served in three of the government’s highest profile cabinet posts in as many years, admitted in a recent interview with The Compass, “ it’s been a tremendous learning experience.”
Asked if he now thinks politics is what it was cracked up to be, Kennedy replied, “I don’t know what I expected when I got into it. But the one thing I did learn is that it’s difficult to train someone as a courtroom lawyer for 20 years in an adversarial system and then expect such a person as myself to get used to the political arena.”
Recalling his early days in the House of Assembly, Kennedy said, “ I can remember my first couple of times in the House ... I felt like I was in court and I oftentimes saw the Opposition as the enemy. I would get more agitated at the media than I should.”
Opposition and media
Over the last three years Kennedy believes he has “matured politically. I understand the Opposition has a job to do and it’s their role to highlight what they see as deficiencies in the system.
“ I understand the media has a role to play, and even though there are days I might think the media are being unfair to me, it’s important that they report on issues that again highlight what they see as deficiencies in the system or how the system can be improved.”
Kennedy also believes he has become better at accepting criticism.
“ The kinds of criticism I’ve gotten used to is criticism I wouldn’t be exposed to as a lawyer, because as a lawyer, I could always fight back and I could basically tell people where to go, for lack of a better term,” Kennedy said with a smile.
Speaking his mind
Kennedy is not the type to suppress his thoughts. That’s not always wise in politics,
“ I tend to speak what I consider to be the truth. So if you ask me a question, I answer honestly and directly, and I’m learning the art of politics doesn’t necessarily mean that all the time you be as blunt or as harsh as I can be. But again that comes from my training as a lawyer, and being able cut through complicated problems and get to the crux of an issue.
“ I’ll be the first to admit there’s mistakes I’ve made as a result of inexperience. But also I continue to learn from my mistakes.”
Under the microscope
Of the three portfolios Kennedy has held, he doesn’t hesitate to say health is the most challenging. When he first took over in health, the department was embroiled in the breast cancer screening scandal, which had shaken public faith in the province’s health care sys- tem.
He’s had to deal with everything from negotiating new labour contracts with the province’s nurses and doctors to the controversial movement of air ambulance service from St. Anthony to Happy Valley-Goose Bay.
To say he’s taken his fair share of heat from the public and the media is an understatement.
But Kennedy understands “ we’re dealing with people in emotional situations — people who see me as the face of the health care system. If things don’t go the way they want, they come at me and the criticism directed towards me can be harsh. I know it’s no good for me to argue logic or that we spent $2.7 billion in health care, because if my son or daughter, mother or father is in a situation where I don’t feel they’re being treated properly, then logic is not going to work. So I’ve really learned to take all of that in stride and to realize people are never going to get everything they want.”
Opportunities for improvement
Despite the battles and the bruises, Kennedy sees health as a portfolio where there is an opportunity to do a lot of good work.
For example, he suggested, “ we’re currently doing some great work in the mental health addictions field, in reducing wait times, enhancing health care in rural Newfoundland and Labrador, improving cancer care and recruiting physicians for the province.”
Overall, he said the postives have outweighed the negatives.
“ I feel the opportunity I’ve been given here is one where I can achieve results, even though those results may not necessarily be seen for a couple of years out, and I’m thinking particularly of reducing wait times.”
Kennedy said there are many “sad stories” in this province, and he sometimes gets frustrated that he can’t do more.
“ Sometimes all people need is a chance in life. Sometimes that chance requires an opportunity to obtain education, or help them look after their children. Unfortunately, we can’t solve all of those problems. That’s part of the frustration I feel. But it’s on days when we can do something good for somebody that I feel this is worthwhile.”