08 November 2005

The return of Backupable Tom - update

In a surprise move, Premier Danny Williams today shuffled five of his cabinet ministers around, including appointing Tom Rideout as the new minister of fisheries and deputy premier.

Rideout's predecessor, Trevor Taylor, has been talking forthrightly for the past few weeks, including some genuinely straight talk in the wake of Derrick Rowe's departure as chief executive office of Fishery Products International (FPI).

Taylor talked himself out of a job. That's clear. But the problem is not that Taylor was wrong. Rather, it was painfully obvious that Taylor was at odds with the cabinet - especially the Premier himself - about how government ought to respond to the problems.

As the Bond Papers noted last Friday:

"Taylor has spoken openly of the overcapacity in the fishery. At the same time, Premier Williams has committed to assisting the community of Harbour Breton cope with the closure by FPI of the community's fishplant. While it is far from conclusive, these contradictory opinions suggest that there are some significant policy differences within government on fisheries issues."

Rideout's appointment is a clear signal as to how the Williams administration will respond to problems in the fishery. If the shuffle itself wasn't enough, the creation of a new portfolio in this administration, that of deputy premier, makes it clear that Rideout holds power and influence in the Williams cabinet second to none except Danny Williams himself.

Rideout was fisheries minister under Brian Peckford between 1985 and 1989 and served in the Peckford cabinet from the time he crossed the floor a few years earlier. Rideout is intimately familiar with the plans to prop up the fishery using tax dollars, rather than reform it.

More importantly, Rideout was fish minister when Fishery Products International was created out out of the collapse of smaller processing companies in the province.

All that points to a return to government intervention and government subsidies in the fishery. It reinforces the idea that the disastrous raw materials sharing program was something foisted on Taylor by his cabinet colleagues. The plan, which attempted to spread a limited resource to as many people as possible, was fundamentally at odds with the implications of Taylor's other public comments about the fishery.

The difference between now and the 1980s is that government has the cash - hundreds of millions of dollars in oil money - to pay for whatever it decides to do. But in truth, the province doesn't really have the cash - the Peckford era policies - every one of them - contributed greatly to the hideous financial mess facing the incoming Wells administration in 1989 and continues to burden the treasury in the form of the growing debt. When Tom points to previous administrations to blame, he is truthfully pointing to his own and ones of which he was a part.

All of this might turn out to be completely wrong; it's just a matter of opinion.

But given the history of this place and the people making decisions, I'd be willing to place a small wager on it:

Tom Rideout will take the province's fisheries policy back to the dismal past.

And that, to quote the former premier, is backupable.

[Update - CBC Radio's David Cochrane made a couple of observations about the big switcheroo today, which I will attempt to paraphrase below. The remarks here are mine, though. Nothing should be attributed to Cochrane in case I misquote him.

1. This is the biggest shuffle in the two years of the administration. Yep. Absolutely. The last shuffle was made because of the unbearable tension between the Premier and his former minister of health. If Trevor hadn't been shuffled he would have been Fabed, or something close to it.

2. Normally, the Premier might have waited a few months for a big shuffle. Again, spot on. No one has really screwed up here. Hedderson may have some issues about watches but unless there is something I am not seeing, the three other shuffles (Joan Burke - Tom Hedderson and Paul Shelly) are just a screen for the major one to make it look less obvious that Trevor got a kick in the crotch.

3. In this case though, as I recall David saying, this was intended to send a message to FPI communities that the fishery is important and, as proof, the second biggest guy in cabinet is in charge of the fishery. Again, right on the money. But where I'd go a step beyond is to point to the likely direction of government policy. If Williams thought the fishery was important enough to reform, he'd have left Taylor place.

What the Premier has done here - understandable politically - is to send a powerful signal that the fishery is so important, nothing is going to change. The Harbour Breton model is going to be the one at play here: pump cash in so people will not leave. Make no mistake: I think Peter Fenwick got this whole thing dead wrong when he wrote that the government policy on Harbour Breton marked a break with the past.

The fix is short-term, to be sure, but then again, that's what I meant when I based my prediction on the history of the province and how decisions get made.

There's also an element here that the Premier - this Premier - is not going to be the guy who brings bad news to anyone at all, ever, unless he absolutely has to.

Take a gander back to that Fenwick piece. Fenwick reflected a great deal of optimism six months ago and he may well hold a different view today, but there is no doubt that this government appeared headed in a much different direction on fisheries issues than it appears to be on right now. The High Liner example Fenwick notes is an example of what Taylor can do when he is allowed to work.

However, in the other cases, including Harbour Breton, the Premier took a direct interest and that's when the policies shifted from New Approach to Same Old, Same Old.