03 February 2009

PurPle haZe

“Who the f*ck’s he trying to impress?” came the voice of a steadfast friend as soon as the phone came up close to an ear.

“Who?” says your humble e-scribbler still choking back the hello.

“Ignatieff” he said, then reeled off a section of some online story about the Liberal leader’s statement that he will let Liberal members of parliament from Newfoundland and Labrador vote against the federal budget this evening even though the party caucus will be voting for it. Five of the six had already said publicly they’d be bucking Iggy and the caucus anyway.

“No one,”  says your scribbler.

“Well, he’s doing a great job.”

“You know,” he added after a long silence, “sometimes it seems like you and me are the only ones around this place not on acid.”

He hung up the phone as if this was just a snippet of an ongoing conversation.

A couple of days ago, another old friend brought up Michael Ignatieff’s increasing tendency to refer to the country  - Canada  - as The Federation.  “I thought Danny was the only trekkie”, he’d said over a coffee, “but that stopped once he got a piece of the action and became a have province.”

The second friend took to calling him Sarek after that. “Buddy started out playing a Romulan, you know,” he reminded, tapping his finger on his nose, as if that meant something.

The Canadian Press story my steadfast friend had been reading over the phone had a few more of those mind-benders in it.

There was Danny Williams praising Sarek for letting members of caucus buck the whip:

“He shows real courage this early in his leadership to be making a move like that. The MPs are being allowed to do what they need to do on behalf of their province and I think the fact that a national leader recognizes that is very important.”

Williams’ own caucus, of course, is not allowed to think for themselves without permission from the Premier’s Office, let alone follow the direction of another party leader. 

The six federal Liberals from Newfoundland and Labrador got bombarded with telephone calls and e-mails this past week, most of them coming from Williams’ caucus directly or at their behest. The original orders came from the 8th, of course.

Someone on the 8th even managed to rouse John Hickey out of his hibernation.  Hickey, who is rumoured to have some  cabinet responsibilities, has been all-but-invisible until the day after Groundhog Day. He called the local morning call-in show on voice of the cabinet minister to list all the wonderful things for Labrador his master could have done with federal money. 

Things like the a power line designed to take the hydro-electric power that wasn’t going off to somewhere else in North America down to the island of Newfoundland.  This would somehow benefit Labrador even though there was no provision for any juice to bleed off to light the odd home in Labrador.

Or the Trans Labrador Highway.

Never mind that Hickey, as highways minister once claimed to have a deal with Ottawa on the thing already on his desk only being forced to admit that he really didn’t.

This is the same John Hickey, incidentally,  who sued former Premier Roger Grimes not for what Grimes said but for what Danny Williams said Grimes said. No one knows what became of the lawsuit.

On another part of the front, the mayor of St. John’s, good Provincial Conservative that he is, took time from walking by a Tim Hortons drive-through to insist the Liberals must vote against the budget or risk their political careers.  At the same time, he tells a national radio audience he can’t wait to get his hands on the federal infrastructure cash.

The foolishness isn’t confined to this latest racket the Premier’s Office acknowledges something called purple files it creates to prepare the Premier for media interviews. The most accountable and open government in civilization denies they exist when reporters ask for them under the province’s open records laws.

Then there is Equalization.

Aside from anything else, a surprising number of the crowd filling up comments on news websites or calling the talk shows on the voice of the cabinet minister think it is time to separate from Canada.  Ottawa is not giving us enough handouts, they say, so we should pack up and leave and get no handouts at all. 

The more loopy of the crew have taken to suggesting that Newfoundland should join with Quebec in a separate country.

The host of the night-time version of this psychedelic extravaganza of the airwaves fuels the chat with his preamble to the show the night of the budget vote. This is the same guy who, as editor of a local newspaper – the Independent – mused about separatism, denied he was a separatist when he ran for the New Democrats last time out and now is back banging the drum about a need to rethink the place of Newfoundland and Labrador within Canada.

Such is politics in Newfoundland and Labrador these days.

Such is public policy in Newfoundland and Labrador these past five years.

And a week after declaring that the budget changes would cripple the province’s economy, Danny Williams is praising Ignatieff for something that, in the end, means absolutely nothing. The budget still passed and the money will go – if it ever really would go – and anyone not in a state of altered conscious would wonder what the fuss was about in the first place.

What about the cash? 

Even Danny Williams is nonplussed this Tuesday.  Williams admitted to reporters on Tuesday afternoon that the federal government will only lift the O’Brien 50% option for this year.

This warp in space-time continuum - Newfoundland circa 1959 - once confined to one part of The Federation has spread.

The five members of parliament who panicked when Danny called did not waste time thinking of what they might do. Like say, finding out if what Danny said was right.

And if it turned out he was, come up with a plan of their own.  Maybe work on the caucus and government to see if a deal could be worked.  Maybe even try proposing an amendment that suspended the specific change for one year. That’s something Danny Williams wanted at one and – since it was aimed at once province – likely wouldn’t upset too many applecarts.  It might have passed.

As it turned out, the one year suspension was an option that the feds already tossed out at some point – did any reporter think to ask when the feds told the province this? - and Danny Williams accepted.

But the Liberals couldn’t even take credit for having anything to do with it.

Instead, Michael Ignatieff asks Stephen Harper if he would entertain a change.

Harper says no.

Case closed.

The six MPs get a pass on the whip – just this once, Iggy insisted – because springing a change is no way to run a Federation. Other provinces, affected as seriously or moreso than Newfoundland and Labrador by the Equalization changes, get no such consideration.  While it is no way to run a federation, according to Iggy, it is apparently not enough of no way to cause a change in who is running the place.

No clearer message could they send.

They might have even considered saying they did not want to become party to the excuse that whatever bad budget decisions this current provincial administration makes over the next three years, Danny Williams can say it’s all Harper’s fault even though that wouldn’t be close to true.

They could have left the job of backing Danny against the unions to the provincial labour leaders, the head of the province’s labour party and the former provincial labour party politician now sitting in Ottawa from this province.

And even if the amendment failed, the whole Liberal caucus might have showed it was willing to try something substantive. Something that ultimately didn’t look like they were responding to the sound of a bell coming from the blackberry upside Danny’s head as he drove his Avalanche down the Parkway.

Or was it the Queensway?

Meanwhile, the Liberals ought to know – every single one of them in Ottawa – that this is not a one shot deal. 

Williams will be back.

He knows what he can do to the federal Liberals and Ignatieff’s promise that this permission is a one-off won’t mean a thing. 

A guy who tells a gaggle of national and local reporters that he has been building up a war chest for when the “feds” come after “us” again, is not a guy who is going away any time soon. 

In a year’s time, Sarek might be the fed Williams is at war with. 

He’ll be back sooner than you think.