22 March 2007

Danny Williams: the problem of being known

[Update: See note below and crosslink on the movie Secret Nation.]

Responsible Government League
's Liam O'Brien is one turned off Conservative.

If anyone wants to understand the extent of dissatisfaction in some quarters with Premier Danny Williams, take a gander at Liam's posts here and here.

For a guy who is as patriotic as anyone else, Danny Williams' claim that anyone backing the current federal government is betraying his or her province, well, let's just say that as soon as those words were broadcast, you could tell there would be some cheesed off locals.

Liam already staked his position on the budget in another post.

This outburst from Liam dovetails nicely with some comments offered by CBC's provincial affairs reporter David Cochrane on Thursday edition of the political panel. Cochrane said that Danny Williams is persona non grata [Bond words, not Cochrane's] in Ottawa these days.

No surprise for Bond readers since that point has been made here repeatedly. As much as Danny Williams has been trying to change his messaging - or at least was toning down the rhetoric right before the budget - the damage has been done.

That's what makes comments from another CBC reporter, radio's legislative reporter Mike Rossiter a bit odd. In Mike's debrief on the Thursday Morning Show, Rossiter talked about comments by an unnamed person or persons that Ottawa simply doesn't understand Danny Williams' economic goals and his nationalism.

Rossiter also referred to the whole fallow field legislation idea which the Prime Minister rejected flatly. According to Rossiter it fell to people like John Fitzgerald, Williams' ambassador to the Prime Minister's waiting room, to explain what Williams was after.

To be frank, that sounds like something we'd hear from the Premier's personal emissary in Ottawa, the highly expensive but apparently ineffectual position Williams created two years ago. While Rossiter is too good a reporter to let slip his sources, his comments sound like they are straight from the lips of the guy whose master's thesis apparently inspired the highly entertaining but highly fictitious movie Secret Nation. [See the correction here. The movie predated the MA thesis so obviously, the later one couldn't inspire the former.]

There are a couple of problems with this view. First of all, if Fitz did such a fine job of translating Danny-speak into something that the ears of federal officials could understand, the whole fallow field issue would have been resolved, wouldn't it?

Second of all, given that Danny Williams is supposedly the Great Negotiator (patent pending), it seems highly odd that a fellow who recently was reduced to sitting in a waiting room hoping to catch a PMO official on the way to a meeting could successfully explain fallow field when the Great Negotiator himself had a meeting with the Prime Minister himself.

If Danny couldn't explain himself to Stephen, it defies even the most fanciful brain to believe that Fitz could do better. Perhaps all that was needed was some appropriate anecdote about 19th century ecclesiastical history and Harper suddenly had a slap-head moment.

Perhaps Harper was convinced by a short recitation of the story linking renovations to the Basilica in the 1950s to Confederation and the Canadianization of Newfoundland and Labrador. ["Skinner consequently had to avoid inflaming anti-Catholic opinion, resurrecting Newfoundland nationalism, or upsetting politicians. If he was pro-Canadian or a 'confederate,' he kept it to himself. ... (The Basilica's interior) spoke more about Newfoundland’s dim Irish past than about its shiny Canadian future..."]

More substantively, though it would be difficult to sustain the argument that people don't understand Danny Williams' nationalism. Their understanding would be born of many things, not the least of which is a traditional townie view of Confederation and Canada. Williams has displayed it openly in many places. In his now famous June 2001 speech in Halifax, Williams took pains to describe the federal government in the most vicious of terms. He has made similar comments in the legislature, some of which, such as comments on the Churchill falls deal, are closer to the realm of fantasy than any matter of fact.

Williams' nationalism, though might well be clearly understood by those in Ottawa given who he appointed as his personal representative.

For those readers who aren't familiar with historian Fitzgerald's views, take this portion of a paper prepared for the Vic Young Airing of Grievances:
Accompanying this public discussion has been an academic debate over Newfoundland nationalism and the merits of Confederation. John Fitzgerald has been a prominent critic of the impact of the Terms of Union on Newfoundland. Invoking the weight of archival evidence -— in a published interview, Fitzgerald asserts that "History is incontrovertible on some of this stuff" -— he notes that [Craig] Dobbin and [former cabinet minister Walter] Noel raise legitimate points. Fitzgerald views the current reappraisal of Newfoundland's constitutional relationship with Canada as a positive development: "The one thing that is overwhelming in this is that I think people are starting to realize generally that Canada's best interests are not necessarily Newfoundland's best interests....And that's a good thing." His scholarly work makes three main arguments: the Terms of Union were negotiated through an extremely unfair and flawed political process; Confederation has not served the province's economic interests; and joining Canada marked the grievous loss of Newfoundland's nationhood. The popularity of this view was reflected during the special conference convened by the Newfoundland Historical Society to mark the fiftieth anniversary of Confederation, titled "Encounters with the Wolf."
Fitzgerald's views are not without criticism from other local historians. The above linked paper notes the views of one historian, namely Jeff Webb:

...Webb has debunked the conspiracy theory that the vote for Confederation was somehow rigged and outlines how nationalist historiography has perpetuated romantic myths rooted in an interpretation of Newfoundlanders as victims. Webb argues that these myths not only ignore the reality of Newfoundland's history, but also embrace a disturbing right-wing ideology which implicitly rejects the democratic rights Newfoundlanders freely exercised in 1949. In addition to this ideological component, nationalism draws on the wider cultural appeal that conspiracy theories enjoy in the present period of political malaise — in Newfoundland as elsewhere in North America — because they offer a fulfilling romantic fantasy:

For a generation that came of age under Smallwood, Moores or Peckford, creating a mythology about the idyllic communities before confederation is easy. Other critics will admit to the existence of poverty, but point to the value of the resources that might have made Newfoundlanders wealthy if Canada had not stolen them. While these resources had the theoretical potential to enrich Newfoundlanders, our experience, under several constitutional regimes, has been that the reality of capitalist exploitation of these resources did not benefit most Newfoundlanders very much. In fact, the most hardy perennial in Newfoundland has been the struggle to find a constitutional solution to economic problems."
Of course, if none of that were true, any doubts federal Conservatives had about the feisty Premier of the eastern province were dispelled in October by none other than the Premier's brother. Both the Prime Minister and the federal Conservative party president were given a fine welcome to what the other Williams apparently referred to as "Dannyland".

Any problems Danny Williams is having in Ottawa do not arise from any misunderstanding about who he is and what he is striving for.

Rather, officials in Ottawa and more particularly, Conservative politicians understand Williams very well. His words and his actions have already branded him indelibly in their minds. How Williams might change that view and restore a productive relationship where none now exists, well, that is a matter for another post.