14 January 2005

When first ministers meet...

They sometimes come up with a deal.

Sometimes they don't.

Sometimes the deal they make is one they repudiate later. Does anyone remember the 1971 constitutional conference in Victoria?

Vic Young, former chair of the Royal Commission on renewing and strengthening our place in Canada writes in today's Globe and Mail that only a "summit" meeting of the Premier and the Prime Minister can now resolve this matter and get the Prime Minister to meet his commitment from June 5, 2004. Young takes up a familiar line that anonymous "federal bureaucrats" have been frustrating this process with their resistance.

Let us take this second proposition first. It is an old excuse for those, like Young, who have argued in the past that the federal government likes to keep this province in a cycle of dependence on federal handouts. There isn't much of substance to this argument; it is offered up as fact without a shred of proof other than that, as in this case, Newfoundland and Labrador isn't getting what it wants and/or deserves.

This argument assumes that this province or, more particularly, the provincial government is somehow cowed by its financial dependence on federal transfers into accepting federal dictation on issues. Any federal deputy minister over the past 55 years has the scars on his head, backside and undoubtedly other places from battles with the Newfoundland and Labrador government on everything from Equalization to the fishery to the Constitution. Cabinet ministers and Prime Ministers have bigger gouges in their hides. The ones not put there by Newfoundlanders and Labradorians have been put there by politicians from the other "have not", so-called dependent provinces.

Yet, if one looks at the record, the Newfoundland and Labrador government has never slavishly followed federal diktats since Confederation. For all the rhetoric about our supposedly colonial status in Canada, there isn't a single case that rivals the pre-Confederation willingness of Newfoundland governments not only to accept British orders meekly but also to volunteer control over huge aspects of Newfoundland's interests to the British without so much as a whimper.

I am not talking about Commission government. I am referring to our international relations after the Great War, including our failure to act on the ability to direct our foreign relations granted by the Statute of Westminster, 1931.

That is not to say that some people haven't pushed a position here based on the fear of federal retribution. Those familiar with Meech Lake will recall the provincial politicians and prominent local business people who wanted the provincial government to sign that Accord out of the fear that the federal government would punish the province. But fear and action are two different things.

As for the first proposition, Young may well be right. It is possible that the first ministers can find an agreement by meeting face-to-face. After all, the Accord is a political deal and any changes have to be accepted by politicians.

Young is wrong, though, if he believes for one moment that what the Prime Minister accepted on June 5, 2004 was the version of the provincial proposal that emerged on June 10, 2004. That isn't even what Danny Williams accepted in the five-minute telephone chat with the Prime Minister that Saturday morning.

As the Premier told the House of Assembly on June 7, he accepted an agreement that would provide "$700 million commitment for the next four years with ongoing additional monies available as this goes on into the future and as new fields come on." That isn't what the province had proposed even in February, as evident from an earlier posting to this blog. What is clear, though, is that between that Saturday and June 10, 2004, the Premier withdrew his own agreement to the Saturday Cell Phone Accord.

That happens, but Mr. Young misleads the public if he claims something other than what the public record clearly shows.

One of the major problems facing both the provincial and federal government is the level to which public expectations have been raised about changes to the Accord. The expectations are based on a consistent, and likely deliberate, misrepresentation of the facts that began in the Young Royal Commission final report and which the current provincial government has transmogrified. The revenues being sought are not provincial government revenues and no measure of Dumpty-esque verbal gymnastics and Stalin-esque revision of history can make Young's claims in the Royal Commission valid ones. Myth is not fact and the upcoming meeting might come to resemble what happens when worlds collide.

The consequence of that pattern of misinformation, coupled with the Premier's commitment that he "will not say yes, to less" makes it almost impossible for the two leaders to achieve an agreement. To meet the current provincial position, the federal government would be forced to established a precedent it simply cannot afford. To accept what might well be an amazingly generous agreement that achieves Young's goals, the Premier would have to admit, even if it is an oblique admission, that his argument to date has been a fallacy. He would have to say yes to less and be convincing.

The price in both cases may well be too high. It may be beyond what two politicians can pay, as able and as well meaning as they might be.

"Summits" make great news, but they don't always produce meaningful results.