23 April 2007

The politics of outrage runs aground

From today's Globe?


Try February 23, 1983.

Following is a Michael Harris piece that originally appeared in the Globe and Mail in the aftermath of the first court case on offshore ownership (the one the nationalists like to forget).

The odd thing is that it doesn't take much adjustment to have this story apply equally well today. A feisty Premier, given to fighting anyone, anywhere, anytime in the best interests of Newfoundland and Labrador, and yet finding himself coming up short.

So to speak.

So for your reading enjoyment is this blast from the past, titled in the original as this post. Don't be confused by some of the references, by the way. Almost a quarter of a century ago, Jim Hodder was a Liberal member of the legislature. Hodder crossed the floor not long after this article appeared. He's like Tom Rideout, at least in that respect.

Leo Barry went on to lead the Liberal Party and was later appointed a justice of the Supreme Court. Brian Peckford is in British Columbia advising people out there about starting an oil and gas industry.


"One cannot reasonably demand that discussions take place on the basis that it would constitute only additional obligations for one party and only benefits for the other."

- Rene Levesque to Brian Peckford on the
Upper Churchill Power question,
April 29, 1980.
There is a caveat to Rene Levesque's otherwise self-evident assessment of what constitutes meaningful negotiations - it is not applicable when dealing with Newfoundland.

For three years now, Premier Brian Peckford has practiced the politics of outrage on a range of arguably outrageous disputes in which Newfoundland has become embroiled.

In the two most celebrated quarrels - with Quebec over Labrador hydro-power and Ottawa over offshore resources - his strategy has been identical. Mr. Peckford has developed a quasi-moral position and then gone on to defend it with messianic zeal. ''Pre-conditions'' has become the buzz word when negotiating with Newfoundland. And if the notion of preconditions precluded meaningful negotiations, that was a problem for the other guy. Newfoundland would soldier on and eventually triumph because Newfoundland was in the right.

As political strategy, the approach has been a howling success - so far. Newfoundlanders unabashedly admire their battling Premier. So much so that the opposition Liberals were almost wiped out in last year's emotional provincial election. Securely wrapped in the provincial flag, Mr. Peckford rules his caucus with an iron hand and the House of Assembly with an iron tongue, much as Joey Smallwood did in his political prime.

But as a means of realizing Mr. Peckford's stated public policy goals, the feisty, inflexible approach has been an abject failure. The Upper Churchill Power Contract remains in full, ruinous force, depriving Newfoundland of $750-million a year to which the province feels entitled. And the vast oil resources off the province's southeast coast remain undeveloped.

Worse, politics as the art of being right has shifted both disputes to a forum where politicians are powerless to influence the outcome - the courts.

The stark reality of what that can mean was demonstrated last week when the Newfoundland Court of Appeal ruled that Ottawa owns resources on the continental shelf off Newfoundland. In a single stroke, the Newfoundland Petroleum Directorate became a legal fiction, the province's oil and gas regulations lost their force, and Mr. Peckford's bargaining position with Ottawa suffered a devastating blow. Ironically, Mr. Peckford must now appeal for his justice to the very court he has consistently described as the tribunal of central Canadians, the Supreme Court of Canada.

Predictably, the political opposition has argued that such epic blundering with the province's long-term future requires the supreme penalty - in the wake of last week's decision, Liberal MHA James Hodder has demanded Mr. Peckford's resignation. But the reaction of fellow Tories, particularly Newfoundland's former energy minister Leo Barry, is of far greater significance.

Mr. Barry has become the first Conservative to publicly criticize Brian Peckford since he became Premier in 1979. Two years ago, the Yale-trained lawyer and author of Newfoundland's oil and gas regulations resigned from the Peckford Cabinet over differences with the Premier on how offshore negotiations with Ottawa should be conducted. Now Mr. Barry is pointing out, ever so delicately, that the ownership question should never have been referred to the Newfoundland court in the first place and that the Newfoundland Government acted ''precipitously'' in so doing.

What makes Mr. Barry's comments all the more significant is the fact that he espouses the same goals as the Premier. Like Mr. Peckford, he too believes Newfoundland is entitled to ownership of offshore resources. But unlike the Premier, his formula for achieving ownership hinged on keeping negotiations with the federal side going and, if a deal couldn't be struck, waiting for a change of governments in Ottawa.

His reasoning was simple. Having already offered Newfoundland 100 per cent ownership of offshore resources in 1980, a Conservative government in Ottawa would have a hard time reneging on that offer if returned to power at some time in the future.

Against the backdrop of his defeat in the Newfoundland courts, and criticism from an prestigious member of his own caucus, Brian Peckford continues to talk tough. But his words are less important now than what happens in the Supreme Court of Canada in the coming weeks.

If the high court upholds the position taken by the provincial Supreme Court, as many legal observers believe it will, the Rowdyman of Newfoundland public life will have learned a harsh political lesson: dogma is no substitute for dialogue, and compromise no synonym for weakness.