23 February 2009

The issue behind the Abitibi upset

Human resources minister Susan Sullivan responded to Mark Griffin’s letter about Abitibi printed in last week’s Grand Falls-Windsor Advertiser.

The root of this whole issue is really the upset in central Newfoundland among people who believed that somehow magic would occur and the mill wouldn’t close. They expected the ministerial committee to do things that were likely never even discussed. 

That’s what happens in these cases. 

Some people just imagine magical results. Like they did in Harbour Breton or Stephenville.  The difference in this case is that there isn’t any place to sop up all the laid-off workers.  As a result people are edgy. They  want to point fingers.

You can tell this is part of the local political dynamic by the line Sullivan uses that essentially sits the whole thing in the hands of the union.  You’ll hear that a lot:  “We only did what the union/workers wanted.” As Sullivan describes it:

"At two specific meetings I was present with Minister Dunderdale when she said clearly to the unions when she said 'Do you understand if you vote in this manner these are the repercussions, these are the consequences; this could happen and this could happen, and ultimately the mill could close. Do you understand that? 'We want to make it clear you understand what the repercussions of your vote might be.' We made that abundantly clear to them and they told us, yes, they were clear, but they had their own decisions to make. We said that was fine."

In short hand:  Hey don’t blame us.  Those guys knew what they were doing when they turned down the last offer.

You can see that real issue too in the portion of the article in which Griffin responds:

"What I would have thought would have been an appropriate approach would be an attempt on the part of government to broker a deal, to mediate deal if they could," Mr. Griffin told the Advertiser.

"If they attempted that and the end result was there was no deal, so be it, but it seems that the government's approach was 'we are not getting involved in the relationship between the union and the company', as if to say that is government policy. There are many examples in our history of government getting involved in these private relationships."

Government getting involved in private relationships.  Like say Stephenville where the government laid millions on the table to subsidize the mill.  You can find plenty of references to that power subsidy coming up online and elsewhere in discussions about the Grand Falls-Windsor mill.  For those who want some discussion of it, you can find references at this old post from 2006 and 2005.

You can see the political upset this is causing in certain quarters by the attacks being mounted against Griffin personally by the Premier – his usual smear that someone has a “political agenda” or “political aspirations” – and some of his staunchest supporters.

We are in polling goosing season after all.  Surely it doesn’t help the partisan illusion of invincibility derived from overwhelming popularity if people actually start voicing concerns about government policy and actions. As one wag put it, the issue doesn’t have to be correct, true or even remotely plausible to capture the popular imagination.  After all, said the wag, the current administration has thrived on things that aren’t true.  They are afraid of this issue because they know too well the power of a highly emotional issue and the political damage it can cause.

All that’s as maybe.  The Abitibi issue has legs and it is causing political problems in central Newfoundland for an administration that has been remarkably able to make these issues disappear.

Let’s see if they can work their magic again.

So far their efforts haven’t been working.


Comment update:  You can find additional detail in a series of columns by Roger Pike in the Advertiser.