18 May 2012

The Federal-Provincial Puzzle #nlpoli

Premier Kathy Dunderdale is frustrated.

Extremely frustrated

“What is it that we have to do down here to get your attention?” she asked, rhetorically, on Thursday.

She expressed that frustration in the House of Assembly in response to questions from Liberal leader Dwight Ball and in a scrum with reporters.  Dunderdale aimed her barbs most especially at defence minister Peter MacKay.

If the Premier is having trouble getting her message through to the federal government, attacking an influential cabinet minister in public for something he didn’t do won’t help matters.

It just piles bad tactics on top of flawed strategies.

At the outset, let’s just note the obvious:  Kathy Dunderdale’s outburst on Thursday was purely a reaction to taunting from Dwight Ball.  Since Dunderdale appeared at a campaign event with Stephen Harper during the last federal election, her political opponents have used it to needle her at every chance they get.

And with every prick of the needle she reacts.

In itself, that’s part of Dunderdale’s problem.  Kathy Dunderdale does not seem to have a clear idea of what she wants to accomplish. Instead she flicks from one topic and mood to another. 

She started out in the campaign cuddling up to her federal cousins.  Dunderdale was very deliberately trying to show that her style was different from that of her predecessor and his Anyone But Conservative campaign.

Voters in Newfoundland and Labrador typically don’t vote Conservative in federal elections.  Not surprisingly, therefore, Dunderdale’s move turned out to be controversial.  So she backed off during the campaign.

Dunderdale did the same sort of thing last year. When the federal government announced they would be closing the marine rescue sub-centre, Dunderdale promised everything from a relentless war to provincial cash to run the centre. All she got for her efforts was a rather painful display of her political impotence.

Anyone paying close attention since 2003 will recognise the pattern.   Constantly shifting priorities was a hallmark of Danny Williams’ year-long quest for a federal handout in 2004 and early 2005. The Ruelokke decision shows the same pattern of mercurial behaviour:  Williams was famous for constantly shifting his demands for no apparent reason.

The issue that prompted Thursday’s outburst were the numerous Conservative promises for Goose Bay that the federal party has made since 2005.  No one  familiar with the base and federal defence issues would be the least bit surprised that the Conservatives are not working to fulfill any of them.  That’s because they were bullshit – painfully obvious bullshit – from the first moment Gordon O’Connor tossed out the first one.

The provincial government has lots of people who have been getting paid to watch defence issues and Goose Bay for years.  The punters might have been shocked by the answers to questions on the order paper in the House of Commons that prompted Ball’s questions.  But for Dunderdale, her cabinet and her staff, these issues are old hat.

If they had a plan or a set of priorities, they should have (would have) crafted a better response to Ball’s predictable questions than kicking Pete MacKay and suggesting that the Prime Minister and his cabinet might be untrustworthy.  No good can come of it.

Federal-provincial relations, as they are known to the bureaucrats and the academics,  are just that:  relations.  And like all relationships, the one between the federal and provincial governments are complex.  They have their ups and downs. There are frustrating disagreements and there are lots of days when everyone gets along.

And like effective relationships, the ones between governments depend on the parties knowing what the other wants – clear communication, in other words.  The people in the relationship have to have relationships themselves.  Your humble e-scribbler worked for a Premier during a very difficult time in federal-provincial relations.  But even when the main political characters – Clyde Wells and federal minister John Crosbie – fell to fighting, both their political staffs and  officials in government departments could carry on and keep the relationship from falling to pieces.

The impression you get from watching things since 2003 is that a series of erratic, highly personal, highly charged clashes and confrontations effectively destroyed the web of personal contacts that the relationship between the federal and provincial governments used to rest on. The thing isn’t destroyed permanently but it will take a while to get things back on the rails.

One thing is almost guaranteed:  a continuation of the emotionally charged, erratic behaviour from the Danny Williams period isn’t helping Kathy Dunderdale change things.  In order to change, you have to change.  Sounds obvious, but apparently such an obvious truth can escape people when they are in the middle of the storm.

Nor will it help Kathy Dunderdale improve relations with Ottawa to believe the foolish idea that she has to fight with the federal government to be good at her job.  It’s an old belief in Newfoundland and Labrador politics that her successful predecessors did that, but it’s a load of crap.  She should leave the crap to the opposition.

People like simple explanations for things, like saying that a Prime Minister is taking out his personal hatred on an entire province over some electoral slight or other.  The simple is usually bullshit in these cases, as Ray Blake’s recent reappraisal of the Term 29 crisis shows.  People claimed the federal Conservative Prime Minister was punishing the province for voting against him.  The truth was infinitely more complex.

In order to change, you have to change. Sounds obvious, but apparently such an obvious truth can escape people when they are in the middle of the storm.

If the path Kathy Dunderdale is on doesn’t work, then she needs to change the path.  Setting her priorities and sticking to them would be a good first step.