28 September 2006

Williams and The Quiet Revulsion

In a scrum with reporters before heading off to a cabinet meeting in Churchill Falls, Danny Williams couldn't help but demonstrate that fundamentally he is getting desperate.

Reporters asked him for reaction to a column in today's Globe by Konrad Yakabuski who points out, among other things that Williams' gamble on the Lower Churchill will likely end in failure. Yakabuski puts the gamble in the context of Hydro-Quebec's hydro-electric development projects that will arrive in the marketplace likely well before the Lower Churchill.

Bond Papers has discussed the same issue following on Yakabuski's last column on the subject. We've also noted that Newfoundland and Labrador Hydro is well behind the competition in developing its own project largely because Williams opted for a so-called go-it-alone option without having even put together a business plan.

That's right.

No business plan before coming to a project that would double the provincial debt.

Bear in mind that in 2001, Williams told enthusiastic provincial Tories in his leadership acceptance speech that "[m]y approach, if you give me the opportunity, will be to set out clearly our goals and to formulate a plan to get us there". This is the same Danny Williams who later committed to a $9.0 billion project without even the most cursory, the most basic, the most fundamental of business management tools.

Almost immediately after that commitment in 2001 he said:
I realize the importance of a strategic plan and the sound financial management on which it must be based.
What plan?

What sound financial management?

Williams response to Yakabuski through reporters is telling. Williams said that Canadians should develop the Lower Churchill because Williams' competition - Quebec - is to volatile to rely on.

Williams has shown himself on numerous occasions to be volatile and in this instance his excuses - that is the most charitable thing to call such petty comments - are an indication of nothing more than his tendency to spit in anyone's eye if it serves his own personal political ends.

The reaction from Quebec, Ontario and from national non-government organizations, as reported by Canadian Press in the story linked above for example, is both predictable and accurate. This is not about pitting province against province.

National audiences should appreciate as well that Williams' comments on Quebec tieing up the power grid in order to exclude Labrador energy are nonsense. They are nonsensical because in Williams' own pursuit of the solo option on the Lower Churchill, he has investigated the cost of doing everything from building transmission lines to American markets to assuming the cost of upgrading the connection between Quebec and Ontario in order to move Lower Churchill power into markets other than Quebec.

He had no choice but do so. In selecting his go-it-alone option, Williams rejected a sound proposal from Ontario and Quebec that would have seen those provinces bear the costs of expanding the grid. Having decided to bear the costs of expanding the grid himself, Williams cannot moan about the supposedly limited grid. It is nonsense; it is a non-issue.

In a larger sense, though, Williams irresponsible remarks about Quebec are just another sign of the extent to which Williams quick-lip have alienated him from virtually everyone of consequence outside Newfoundland and Labrador. In 2004, he stormed out of a federal-provincial conference not because of a disagreement with Ottawa over offshore finances - as he claimed - but rather because his some of his fellow premiers were growing increasingly annoyed with his self-serving approach and his histrionics.

In successive tirades and fits of pique, Williams has created a climate in which he is viewed as unstable. The investment community has looked in amazement as Williams threatened expropriation whenever he hasn't gotten his way not once or twice but on several occasions. His recent crusade on legislation to force development of offshore oilfields is nothing more than an attempt to bring about by legal force majeure what he could not achieve or would not achieve in fair negotiations.

Williams is wrong about the need for the legislation or the issue and the more he pursues it and rants about it the stronger the message that is sent to people who might be willing to do business with him: Don't do it. Avoid Newfoundland and Labrador.

Next Tuesday, Williams' business department will finally unveil the so-called re-branding image for Newfoundland and Labrador. No matter how brilliant it is - and a great many great ideas are already said to have be quashed by Williams' veto when he ran the business portfolio himself - there is precious little a nice picture and a slick advertising campaign can do to get past the dismal reputation Williams has earned for himself after three years in office.

Isolated politically, unable to produce a successful major economic initiative and facing the resurgence of a political scandal in the House of Assembly when more detailed reports are released later this year, Williams may be the darling of the opinion polls. This is increasingly an image, though and not something of substance.

A mood is growing in Newfoundland and Labrador.

There is increasingly a sense of quiet revulsion at Williams' histrionics since ranting seems to be all he has. Since the 2005 offshore deal with Ottawa - that delivered nothing more than increased federal handouts - Williams has not been able to close a single deal. In Hebron, he gambled, miscalculated and lost billions in oil revenue.

The effects of that failure - the repeated failures - will be seen increasingly the months and years ahead. The men and women who were looking forward to developing the local oil and gas economy have already felt the sense of revulsion as they leave the province to work elsewhere. Men and women in other parts of the province - like Harbour Breton or Stephenville - have felt the revulsion. As more and more feel the sting of the failures, the revulsion will grow.

In typical Newfoundland and Labrador fashion, though, they will not throw up barricades or take to the airwaves. No. They will keep their feelings inside, voicing their anger, their discontent - or worse their profound disappointment - only to their most trusted friends. Theirs is a quiet revulsion that does not show up in government-goosed public opinion polls, but it is there. And for a government, it is acid that slowly eats away at its term of office.

Joe Smallwood held power for 22 years; Brian Peckford, a decade. Brian Tobin lasted four years and by the third year there was an increasing disquiet at his leadership.

Newfoundlanders and Labradorians have grown increasingly tired of politicians who have nothing to offer but confrontation. John Crosbie's characterization of Williams in the recent Independent issue - that he is a fighter because we love fighters - may have held the promise of long-lasting political success two decades ago.

But this place changed long before Danny Williams came to office.

This is a place where the quiet revulsion that eventually toppled Smallwood and defeated Peckford comes much more quickly than ever.

And unless Danny Williams changes to a genuinely New Approach, he will likely suffer the same fate.

Try as he might, he will have no one to blame but himself.