04 June 2013

Familiar tunes amid the Shifting Balance of Power #nlpoli

All the talk the past week or so about negotiations between the crowd in Confederation Building and the crowd in Ottawa  brought out the conventional wisdom about premiers using fights with the feds for political purposes.

The coincidence of a talk on nationalism the week before linked the two ideas together neatly for some people. Kathy Dunderdale was having a row with Ottawa, possibly to boost her polling and maybe as a show of nationalist fervour that we all love.

Yeah, maybe that’s true.

And then again, maybe it just isn’t.

After all, Kathy Dunderdale has been down this road before.  Last year around this time, the Premier was frustrated that the federal Tories weren’t delivering on their numerous promises of federal pork for Goose Bay.  Just before that she was fighting about search and rescue, something she brought back again in her claims this time about talks on free trade with the Europeans.

None of it got her anywhere with ordinary Newfoundlanders and Labradorians, if that’s what she’d hopes.  Kathy’s polling numbers got worse in the past year.

And odds are good that these erratic outbursts from the Premier have just made it all the more difficult for the provincial government to get anything done with the federal government.  There was a passing mention of that sort of thing  this weekend on CBC’s On Point with David Cochrane.  Cochrane noted he heard from Ottawa that federal Conservatives are ticked at the Premier’s comments, particularly about the Prime Minister’s former chief of staff. 

Former natural resources minister Shawn Skinner tried some other explanations for the Premier’s latest racket.  Supposedly, this was an effort by the Premier to explain to people why the loan guarantee was delayed.  That might be the case, except that the Premier was describing in May what had happened in November, as David Cochrane pointed out.

Skinner also mentioned the earlier stages of the European trade talks.  Provinces were looking out for themselves and the federal government was trying to cut deals with all of them, Skinner said.  two things are worth noting about this explanation.  First,  that was when the provincial government decided not to participate in the talks.  Danny Williams tied the provincial position to the seal hunt and Stephen Harper. 

Second, and as the Telegram’s Russell Wangersky pointed out to Skinner, it is hardly news that provinces were concerned about their own interests and that the federal government was trying to cobble together a deal among the lot of them. 

Wangersky had another possible explanation for the Premier’s comments.  Maybe she was trying to soften the blow for the near future when the provincial government agrees to get rid of minimum processing regulations. 

That’s plausible and it certainly recognizes one of the things the conventional arguments – and Skinner’s talking point  - ignores.  Just as the federal and provincial governments in the rest of the country have interests and competing agendas, the provincial government here has an agenda as well that isn’t the simplistic tale Kathy Dunderdale tells of holding federal feet to the fire. 

Sometimes, the government position reflects internal divisions.  That’s one explanation SRBP tossed out there last week, given the obvious gap between Kathy Dunderdale’s statements and the provincial position described by fisheries minister Derrick Dalley.

Take a look at the initial provincial position to sit out the talks and you might see another example.  It came on the heels of the failed ABC campaign.  Danny Williams attacked Stephen Harper personally, as Williams loved to do.  Incidentally,  Skinner had initially rejected the ABC campaign.  Not his style.

In the event, Skinner’s view didn’t hold sway. Williams suffered a huge personal political defeat with his ABC failure.  Had the provincial government participated in the talks, Danny Williams would have had to acknowledge publicly that his ABC campaign had been a dismal failure.  Either that or he knew heading into the talks that he could not participate in the talks and engage in his usual theatrics that brought him personal success in popularity but seldom produced anything else of substance.

If that highly personal explanation doesn’t grab you, think about it this way.  Free trade would almost inevitably have involved changes in provincial policies in the fishery. Danny Williams was generally unwilling to risk his own popularity for anything.  Kathy Dunderdale, among others, favoured traditional policies.  Her political status derived largely from Williams. Neither was known for political courage and new ideas.  Other ministers like Skinner and Trevor Taylor may well have had other ideas, as they often expressed publicly.

The problem for them was the power balance inside cabinet.  Hypothetically, dissident ministers like  Skinner (never a big Kathy Dunderdale fan)  or Trevor Taylor simply could never have wielded the kind of influence against the hegemony of Williams and his cabal of enablers  - like Tom Marshall and Kathy Dunderdale - that others could these days against a Premier whose position exists purely as one among equals.

If you look at the comments from the fisheries union, the processors and others the past few days, you can see a potent reason why the Premier wouldn’t have to lay the groundwork with the public about the elimination of archaic processing regulations.  The industry will likely be united as never before.  That unity will make the political job of selling a trade agreement that kills processing regulations that much easier.

But if Kathy Dunderdale didn’t share the industry’s enthusiasm for dumping out-dated ideas, then she might need another tack.  She might well have gone public in hopes of winning some popular support for her position.  Just remember, she positioned herself as the personal champion of minimum processing restrictions. That was a big message she got through loud and clear, just as she seemed to take great delight on Thursday in noting that she had tied search and rescue to free trade. Trying to get more federal spending on search and rescue. 

That’s another old Kathy Dunderdale position, in case you’d forgotten.