12 November 2012

Some Thoughts on Politics, Myth, and Identity #nlpoli

Your humble e-scribbler saw a couple of comments last week that said the NDP town hall on Muskrat Falls was a good argument against having a referendum on the megaproject.  Some people were quite badly misinformed, so the commentary went, not just about Muskrat Falls itself but about the province’s electricity supply and demand.

Those observations are surprising.  They are surprising because we’ve had two whole years of relentless marketing by Nalcor about their project.  They are surprising because the provincial government has been trying to develop the Lower Churchill continuously since 1998.  There isn’t a single year since then when the provincial government, Nalcor and before that Newfoundland and Labrador Hydro have not been trying to find some way to get this thing done.

That’s almost 15 years of relentless public discussion.  And still people don’t know basic information.

Absolutely gobsmacking, that is.  Unless you think about public discussions over the past decade or so.

It was a single cheque.  Get over it.

Take the Equalization row in 2004-2005.  The province’s finance minister stood up in a news conference at one point and declared with apparent astonishment that as the provincial government earned more of its own revenue, the more its Equalization declined. Now whether the minister was play-acting for the cameras or he was genuinely outraged, we do know that hundreds of thousands of his fellow Newfoundlanders and Labradorians were angry to find that out.

Not many, including a great many in the news media and politics, seemed to understand that the finance minister had described exactly how Equalization worked.  And as surely as they were confused about Equalization itself, those same people were equally as confused about the deal signed in January 2005.  It was worth about $2.6 billion and that’s it.  The provincial government got a cheque for $2.0 billion up front and then had a shot at a bonus of another $600 million or so, which it wound up collecting.

Some thought it would be worth almost double that.  Wade Locke thought so, for example, as did Jack Harris, now a member of parliament and then the provincial New Democratic Party leader.

The deal also didn’t stretch on into the future as some prominent people claimed at the time that it might.  Just for the fun of it, take a gander at this comment from an SRBP post from February 2005:

Now, of course, theoretically, this new deal, the "monumental" one, could possibly yield more cash [than the $2.0 billion up front payment]. That is, it could if the province doesn't make so much money it goes off the Equalization rolls before 2012. That is it could if the province also stays on Equalization into the second eight-year phase. That second year phase is one of the things that changed in the federal offer in December, but if Newfoundland and Labrador likely won't qualify for it, the second eight years is a theoretical benefit only.

But think about it for a second. The key element of every federal offer has been that the 100% offsets last only so long as the provincial government receives Equalization. That's the basic principle of the deal. (Ignore the amount of cash for a second since it varies with the price per barrel of oil.)

Keep those paragraphs in mind, incidentally.  We’ll be coming back to them another time.  But for now just realise that the level of misinformation, the lack of knowledge about really basic aspects of major public issues can be quite high and it can reach quite far.

How Equalization worked was just part of it.  Danny Williams and the Conservatives built a huge part of their argument on the idea that the federal government actually took away oil royalties themselves, something it had never done.  All that was tied with “historic grievances” catalogued neatly in the Vic Young commission on the province’s place in Canada.

And don’t forget the match…

Williams built his political success on a high octane mix of personal anger and fantasy versions of the past.  There’s perhaps no finer example of the fairy tale aspect of Williams’ earlier years was the pink,white, and green flag.  Williams even went so far as to commission a poll on whether people wanted this supposed national flag of Newfoundland to replace the Peckford flag from the 1980s.  Few did, as it turned out. Williams said publicly he was surprised by the poll results.

And it’s good they didn’t,  too.  What Williams was running with was a popular belief about the flag.  A bunch of young fellows even took to flying a gigantic version of the flag on the Southside Hills in St. John’s.  Turns out it wasn’t the national flag at all.  It was based on the colours of a sectarian fishermen’s benevolent society.  But a national flag of Newfoundland?  No.  The rest, as it turned out, wasn’t history at all.

So much of what people have been passing off as history this past decade or so, they also elevate to the status of heritage, culture and identity of Newfoundlanders as not just a people, but as a race.  We cannot be a dying race, Williams himself said, in 2007, as he announced a government program that would pay women $1,000 for each baby they had or adopted. 

The politics of identity

The politics of identity is very much on the mind of a political science graduate student from Newfoundland and Labrador and now in Alberta.  “boy moores & the culture club” is a new post at at Drew Brown’s blog coaker’s ghost: reflections on theory & politics from a Newfoundlander in exile.

It’s almost a trope at this point to call the post-Smallwood cultural scene the “Newfoundland Renaissance” but I think there is definitely merit to this idea, especially if we consider the way that Moores (and, to a much greater extent, Peckford) mobilized this re-creation of Newfoundland identity for political purposes.

Brown notes at the end of the post that his comments are part of the early process of working through his ideas.  This SRBP post is much the same, but Brown is working in an interesting area of political science and history.  This is not stale, dusty stuff.  it is contemporary:

Danny Williams’ name is synonymous with popular ideas of contemporary Newfoundland nationalism, and we’ve seen it employed by the Dunderdale administration as well (consider, for instance, appealing to anti-Quebec Revancheism in order to sell Muskrat Falls).

They aren’t using the ideas.  They really believe them.

Quebec is very much at the heart of the pro-Muskrat Falls agenda.

Williams ranted endlessly about Quebec for the last year and half of his term as Premier.  Dunderdale has gone back to the anti-Quebec well, over the past couple of years.

“The gatekeepers of the natural transmission route through Quebec were denying us fair opportunity to get the power to market,” Dunderdale told the St. John’s Board of Trade in January.  “And having been burnt once on the Upper Churchill, we were determined not to let that happen again.”

Quebec is as relentless as it is nefarious.  Even American free trade rules have not “stopped Quebec from finding ways to block and interfere with our access to their grid,”  as Dunderdale told the Board of Trade in October. 

The word “Quebec” occurs 17 times in that speech.  In Williams’ last speech to the same group, almost two full years earlier (September 2010), he mentioned “Quebec” 32 times.  And that January, he mentioned the word “Quebec” 45 times in a speech in Ottawa.

For his entire time in politics, Williams used all the aspects of the Churchill River grievance.  Lower Churchill. Joe Smallwood’s give away when he signed Churchill Falls, the perpetual war with Quebec, the great power corridor story and on and on.

All true, except that Smallwood didn’t sign any deal to develop Churchill Falls, we have been fighting against Quebec except for all the times we agreed with Quebec on major policy issues, and the times when we tried to cut secret deals with them, and there never was a corridor request for Ottawa to refuse. Indeed, the Churchill Falls contract wasn’t perceived as a major political problem until after the Moores administration nationalised Brinco in the mid-1970s.

The war with Quebec is like Screech-ins.  Both are perceived as  traditional aspects of the collective history of Newfoundlanders and Labrador.  People also think they are real, that is, that they involve actual events in the past. 

And yet they are both invented.  

Many of  our ideas about tradition and culture and identity in Newfoundland and Labrador bear only a passing resemblance to actual events. They seem to be  - to expand on one of Brown’s observations – a commodity developed for economic purposes.

The audience for much of it in the 1960s and 1970s, as with tourism advertising since 2003 was aimed at expatriate Newfoundlanders.  Come Home Year in 1966 was the first such effort and it is no coincidence the article Brown mentions in his post begins with that event. What followed was a proliferation of Newfie joke books and Newfie souvenirs like the string with a rock at the end of it, described as a weather forecaster:  if wet, it was raining, if warm, it was sunny, if white, it was snowing, and so on.

Those that hadn’t left the island had likely moved around as a result of resettlement and economic development in the same decades.  Physical relocation and corresponding social dislocation produce a certain element of nostalgia.

Coupled with the nostalgia was an element of loss, and out of that came an interpretation of Newfoundlanders as victims:  Newfoundlanders have always been the victims of outsiders – the British, the Canadians, and Quebeckers.  They have struggled to wrestle control of their resources from outsiders first from the British and then from the Canadians to whom Newfoundland was supposedly sold, in the more extreme versions of the story, by the British in 1949 in a rigged referendum.

It’s a townie thing

What seems most striking about all of these traditions or traditional understandings of our history and heritage is that they find their strongest adherents among the urbanites, the middle class, the townies. 

The ultimate expression of this phenomenon, as SRBP would offer, is the supposed revival of “traditional” mummering noted by Lisa Moore a couple of years ago.  As SRBP put it in a commentary on Moores’ article in The Walrus:

Moore criticises the tourism commercials developed during Williams’ tenure for their artificial portrayal of the province:  “It’s a branded Newfoundland and Labrador, quaint and pleasantly out of sync” presumably with reality as Moore perceives it.

Moore then contrasts this with what she presents as a “revival” of mummering.

But the mummers Moore describes aren’t in small communities.  They are part of an appropriation of a rural tradition by urbanites like Moore and her circle. The townies take stuff they read in books and use bits of this and fragments of that to replicate what they imagine mummering used to be. The imbue their creations with meaning, interpretation and a backstory.

But it is not real.

The whole thing is invention.

In a place where so much of the popular view of history and tradition is invention,  is it really so surprising that some people might be generally unaware of the details of an issue that has been a central feature of local politics for the past decade and a half?

In such a place, all that is solid really would melt into air.