17 May 2010

Reach for the Screech

In a couple of weeks time, the Memorial University political science department is holding a reunion.  The thing is timed to coincide with the spring convocation.  A bunch of alumni will be there, none of whom has written – as best as your humble e-scribbler can determine – what we used to joke was the definitive doctoral thesis on local politics.

The influence of rum on Newfoundland public policy.

That was the working title.

screech rum On the surface, it would be a piece about the triangle trade and especially the exchange of salt fish with Caribbean countries in exchange for that magical elixir.

But on the more cynical level it was supposed to be a work that noted the number of times local politicians made decisions that seemed – in the cold light of morning – as if they’d been tanked up on the dark liquid at every stage from the moment the idea popped into someone’s head until someone scrawled the last  signature across the last contract.

Rum, it would seem, played a role in a few of the more colourful events in local political life.  Elections sometimes turned on the number of swallies doled out in the right districts. Fistfights in the legislature sometimes came complete with their own aroma – essence of the captain – to cover over the smell of blood and snot on the curtains behind the Speaker’s chair from the odd poke in the snoot one gave another.

Heck, so pervasive is the rumoured connection between politics and the bottle that the current Premier – the Old Man Hisself – could not help but make a half-joking reference to it.  That was back in 2004, incidentally, in an editorial board meeting with the crowd at Macleans. 

But while tippling on the job fell out of favour a few years back, few would blame the current crowd were they to ever to be found seeking comfort with a reach for the Screech. 

After all, they have not had a good political day in the better part of a year:  Resignations, the stunning loss of a by-election, public finances in a mess, caught frigging with the 1961 Churchill falls lease and then forced to hold an emergency session of the legislature to clean up the mess of that, the shagged up expropriation of Abitibi’s polluted properties, pollution reports they tried to keep secret.

And still no Lower Churchill.

The finest undeveloped hydro project in North America, as the Old Man likes to call it.  The phrase is getting a little shop-worn by the way, since it was first called that way back before the provincial government nationalised BRINCO in the mid-1970s. 

40 years later, still undeveloped but still the finest.

Once said to be Hisself’s legacy project.  Staying until it as done, he said.

But now things are so dark that even Hisself apparently doesn’t like to talk about legacies anymore.

Don Martin, still desperate to see his 2004 “Harper wins majority” headline used as something other than a joke, took a trip to the far east to chat with the Old Man. The account of the visit – or a least the sampling of the local heart-stopping cuisine – is in the weekend National Post.

"I hope my own legacy -- which is a stupid term but it's in vogue so I'll use it -- is that we can keep this feeling of pride and respect and self-confidence, that we're as good as anybody else.

"For the longest time we were perceived by Canadians as second-class citizens. Those who knew us knew it was bum rap, but it was an overall perception that's changed dramatically. When you've got young people from other parts of the country coming here, not just for an education but also to stay and work, it shows we have a real good future."

There it is:  Williams wants to be remembered for something he didn’t do.  Williams has nothing to talk about except a throne speech from five years ago:

This is a speech which claims credit for finding that which was not lost. It praises the lustre restored to that which had not been dulled. It lauds the cleansing of that which is not sullied. It remembers what was never forgotten. This speech sings hymns of praise to its authors unhindered by modesty or fact.

Williams chose to call his 2005 hand-out from Ottawa the “Atlantic Accord” and not surprisingly it is often confused with the real accomplishment of the same name done by someone else 25 years ago.  It shouldn’t be surprising he now wants his legacy to be claiming credit for something Newfoundlanders and Labradorians never lacked:  confidence in their own abilities. Forget what others thought.  Self-confidence and ability is something the people of this province have always had, in spades.

But look at Danny Williams’ comments in this Martin column and you can see the state of affairs almost eight years after he took office.  We need to be masters of our destiny Williams says, or more like it: masters of our domain as a budget speech two years ago put it.  “Need to be”, as if we aren’t now and never have been.

Again with the false goals.  Newfoundlanders and Labradorians have always been masters of their own fate.

The problem they face today is that as they roll up on the end of the period Williams used to say was the time frame for his plan to take effect, things are not looking all that good.

The local economy seems more dependent than ever before on public spending.  The Conference Board of Canada predicted last week that the provincial economy would grow by 2.4% in 2010 based mostly on public infrastructure spending. But the government budget last year was short by a half a billion dollars, one of the largest cash deficits in the province’s history.  The forecast is that it will be short again by at least that much, if not more. If growth depends on the public purse, then this province is in for a hard time any day now.  

Williams came to office promising ”jobs, jobs, jobs” that he would create based on his proven ability as a local businessman. A new department – with the creative name “business”  - sprang up to to channel his genius. 

After a couple of years, no one  - least of all Danny - had any idea what the department was supposed to do.  Scuttlebutt had it that his own deputy minister couldn’t get to see him for months on end. The only thing that piled up were claims about how many files from companies sat on someone’s desk.

By the time someone figured out what the “plan” might look like, Williams had long since handed over his own personal department to first one and then another and then another of his ministers. Other things needed the Old Man’s attention more urgently than did his own personal department.

valdmanis_550 The “plan”  - as the successors finally hit on it in 2007  - would be to hand out free cash to any company that would come here to do business.  The only thing missing from this revolutionary, never-before-seen concept was the Latvian crook to run around clicking his heels together with a snappy “Yes, My Premier” at the prospect of yet another rubber boot factory or eyeglass plant.

Not content with just that bit of genius, after threatening expropriation a couple of times and then finally doing it to no fewer than three companies, the current crowd put in authority over us have so fouled the investment climate in the province that they cannot even pay companies to come here and create jobs. 

Think about that for a second.

Out of $75 million budgeted for the give-aways since 2007, the business department has handed out only $14 million of it.  Some went to set up a marine service centre in  a land-locked town. Half the cash they did dole out went to a company – itself a descendant of the Latvian legacy – that promised to add 50 jobs but instead cut nearly twice that. No word if they’ll still get all the cash.

The Tories said “no more give-aways” but somehow this doesn’t seem to be what they had in mind.  Things have changed on many fronts, alright, but not in the way people might have expected.

The government backbenchers don’t talk so much any more about how great things are across the province.  Their speeches in the legislature these days are more likely than not great homages to their glorious leader.  They offer paens to his posterior that seem to be either laying the groundwork for his departure -  he is, Martin tells us, “mindful of being closer to the end of his political career than the beginning”  - or coded, panic-stricken pleas for him not to shag off permanently to the new digs in Florida. 

It’s likely been a bit jarring for the poor dears to poke their heads out of the fog of their prepared Open Line talking points only to discover that they are not – in fact – just coming up on the New Jerusalem as foretold in the speaking notes;  they are in fact currently midway up shit creek and none of Danny’s potential replacements appears to know where he keeps the batteries for the GPS, let alone have a clear idea of how to work it.

And that original eight year plan, the one it took them four years just to figure out?

Even that has changed:

But that's just the beginning of his 30-year plan to harness offshore oil and gas, wind and hydro electric power into Newfoundland's shield against buffeting by external forces.

It’s enough to make anyone reach for the Screech.