It was the St. John’s Board of Trade.
As a rule, the townie business community have the guts of political guppies. They’ll run along with whatever the government says and Monday was no different. When the Conservatives were spending and spending beyond what the province could afford, the crowd at the Board of Trade cheered wildly. And now on cue they are repeating the Conservative line on spending restraint – when there really isn’t any – and the glories of Muskrat Falls, which is the proof the government is continuing to spend beyond the public’s means.
The crowd at the aptly named BOT know what side their bread is buttered on so they applauded in all the right spots in the Premier’s stock speech.
Well, almost stock.
Kathy goes off script a lot more these days than she used to. She still sounds a bit breathless, hence nervous and unsteady. But speaking extemporaneously always conveys a sense of authority and a command of the subject even if it seems sometimes that Kathy has spent a great deal of time rehearsing her off-the-cuff remarks.
She starts talking about how the federal government was – supposedly – trying to tie the loan guarantee for Muskrat Falls to fisheries issues in the European free trade talks.
You have to say supposedly because when it comes to dealings the federal government, the crowd running the place since 2003 have been known to be somewhat creative with reality. They have even been known to say things that are simply not true. We might even say that they have been known to lie.
But in this case, you need to listen carefully to the story Kathy tells to figure out what went on.
She wants to impress some caller to the Fisheries Broadcast that Kathy is made of stern stuff. She will not bend under pressure. No matter what.
As proof of her stolid nature, Kathy tells us that as late as the weekend before last, the loan guarantee on Muskrat Falls was not finalised.
Not copper-fastened, as it were.
She talks about a series of phone calls, including one from Nigel Wright before he had to leaving the Prime Minister’s employ. These things did not happen last fall, as some early media reports had it, although Kathy does note that the free trade-loan guarantee link was something that apparently caused problems during the talks last year.
This stuff continued to happen up until three or four days ago.
Kathy Dunderdale talks about holding the Prime Minister’s feet to the fire, but the story she told doesn’t sound like any of that. What Kathy is doing in her version is fending off a series of demands from the people who hold the upper hand in all this.
Kathy Dunderdale desperately needs the loan guarantee. Without, Muskrat Falls is deader than dead. Even with the loan guarantee, there is no guarantee the whole thing will fly. So, the federal government supposedly tried to use its advantage.
Maybe it did.
Frankly, that story doesn’t ring true.
Newfoundland’s fish resources are just not that important economically outside this province and they have a lot more political value inside the province these days than out. Without more detail, it is a bit hard to see why the Europeans and hence the federal government might be so concerned about Newfoundland’s antiquated fisheries management system. The whole thing is on the verge of collapse anyway such is the fruit of years of indolence and political mischief.
Even the Premier herself couldn’t explain it when reporters asked her about the issue in the scrum. Maybe she is telling the truth here. Some more details may come forward to confirm her account but for now, let's just say that her story is a bit hard to swallow.
Anyway, there’s a much more plausible explanation right there in Kathy Dunderdale’s story. You just have to listen.
Listen to the part of the story - a bit after 22:00 - where Kathy Dunderdale describes working on the Victoria Day weekend. Not working on the loan guarantee. Working on the free trade talks.
And then along comes the minister.
Kathy doesn’t say.
In her version, the minister doesn’t raise the loan guarantee.
Someone from the provincial side does.
The minister wants to get on with the trade issues. No mention, apparently of the loan guarantee.
“Do we have [it]?” someone asks the unnamed minister before agreeing to discuss free trade. “Can we go to RFF [request for financing] before 12 o’clock on Tuesday?”
It is the province that is trying to get the loan guarantee settled and holding up the free trade talks to do it.
“Do we have it?” someone asks again. When the minister replies yes, then Dunderdale is ready to talk trade.
If you listen carefully, and follow the story as it unfolds, it seems that the linkage between the loan guarantee and the trade talks is coming from the provincial side. The provincial government needs the loan guarantee but it may not be of the same urgency for the federal government that it is for Kathy Dunderdale.
The feds are likely and understandably a lot more interested in the European free trade talks than the loan guarantee. As far as minimum processing requirements go, this is part of the highly politicised system of fisheries management we have in Newfoundland and Labrador. The Europeans may not be interested in it at all. The federal government might just want to drag the provincial government here out of its patronage addled ways and into something vaguely resembling the 20th century, let alone the 21st.
And politically a tale about the fishery and holding onto the past is a potent message Kathy Dunderdale evidently needed to get to rural Newfoundland even if the story needed some creative re-imagining in order to work.
Check the Premier's scrum with reporters after the speech. All about the free trade talks that Kathy Dunderdale says she expects will be finalised within a couple of weeks.
In the speech, the quid pro quo story is then a bridge to another message, one that she has used before. The relationship with Ottawa is hard because they do not understand us. Kathy needs a seat at the table so she can explain the “legitimate needs and aspirations” of the newfoundland people to the crowd up-along. In this case it worked and Kathy claims, by the 25 minute mark, that she got the federal government to deliver on its promises.
This is a familiar theme. It is essentially what the Tories have been claiming since 2003 as their role. Some people contend this is a nationalistic tone. Let’s just say that the speech will make an interesting re=appearance in a couple of days when we talk about another hot topic recently; nationalism.