09 January 2005

From one Ed to another

Just to set the record straight from the outset, I have known Ed Ring for the better part of 15 years. He is one of the finest people I have ever known and he has served his country with dignity, sensitivity and intelligence for most of his adult life.

On that basis, when he wrote a letter to the local newspaper and today is profiled in the Sunday Telegram on the issue of lowering Canadian flags, I paid attention to what he had to say.

I respect Ed Ring and I respect his opinion. But I disagree with him.

In the current dispute over the Atlantic Accord, the provincial government's objective should be to conclude the best possible agreement for the benefit of the province as a whole. It should work hard to make a strong case. The government should do everything reasonable within its power.

In order to reach an agreement, though, a couple of things are necessary. First, there needs to be a clear statement of objectives - people in the province have a right to know what the provincial government is trying to achieve; the federal government has to know as well.

So far, as readers of this blog will see, the provincial government position has changed very significantly between the time the Prime Minister accepted the original provincial proposal and June 10.

The problems this change creates should be obvious. If the new proposal, if the new demands, simply can't be met without causing greater difficulties within Confederation then the federal government can never agree. No federal government could. Politics is, after all, the art of the possible. If the demands are impossible to achieve then nothing will be resolved.

The other problem comes for the people of Newfoundland and Labrador who are called on to support the provincial government in its struggle. If we cannot know what is being sought and what has been offered, then there is no way to judge success or failure. There is no way to see if there is room for reasonable compromise that allows us to achieve what is possible.

No democratic government worthy of the name can ask its citizens to go to war - figuratively or literally - without their informed consent. Democracy thrives on information and consent. Thus far, the provincial government has been short on the former, although it enjoys much of the latter.

Second, in order to reach an agreement there has to be effective communication: we have to speak and be heard; we also have to listen. Any obstacle to effective communication is an obstacle to a peaceful settlement of any dispute, no matter how egregious, no matter how deeply felt, or no matter how long-standing the dispute may be.

Here's where I disagree with Ed Ring.

Pulling down flags, even with an attitude of respect, is not designed to open people's minds. It doesn't encourage them to open their ears. The visceral reaction of Canadians across the country was predictable. The result has been predictable too. Editorial opinion across the country has solidified against the Newfoundland and Labrador government's proposal. The Globe and Mail has changed its position from one of support to opposition.

In the same way, two columns this past weekend are also predictable. Margaret Wente may have been more crass than Michael Bliss in her statements but their conclusion is the same: put up or shut up, Newfoundland and Labrador. If you want to separate, don't let the door hit you on the way out. They have concluded that we are less valuable to the country than any other province, that Canadians from this place are not worth the bother of further discussion.

The local reaction has been predictably strong. Some claim we are more unified here than ever before, but none has dared to check and see what they think they are unified for. We know what they are against and that's more than a bit different. That's the easy bit.

Those statements about unity beg a simple question: is the provincial government any closer to achieving an agreement now that it was before the flags came down? Unequivocally, the answer is no. Even the Premier agrees with that conclusion, it has become so obvious.

So Ed, I agree the Premier only has so many tools in his tool box, as you put it. But Canadian experience in resolving international conflicts should point out the folly of pushing people apart through slights to cherished symbols. We know the value of one of the most powerful tools in even the skimpiest of tool chests. Thumbing your nose at the other guy just doesn't cut it.

The best tool any political figure has is the one needed most now, when two sides are polarized, when trenches are dug and no settlement seems likely. This has now become a time for leadership.

If Danny Williams hasn't done so already, I'd strongly recommend he give Ed Ring a call.

Leadership is what Ed is all about.