09 December 2013

The Conservatives and federal-provincial relations #nlpoli

Two news stories last week reminded us once again of the nature of federal-provincial relations for Newfoundland and Labrador over the past decade.

A story in the Chronicle Herald reported on recent comments by Danny Williams about a sharp personal exchange he supposed had with Stephen Harper before the later became prime minister.

The second story was the release late in the week by Premier Kathy Dunderdale of some documents about the provincial government’s position on the Canada- European Union trade agreement. The 80-odd pages of e-mails and letters include an effort by the provincial government to tie search and rescue, an offshore safety agency,  and the federal government’s Hibernia shares in a deal between the federal and provincial governments. 

Nasty and Personal

The Williams story is not about the fact that both Williams and Harper supposedly used bad language.  Nor is the story about the idea that the two didn’t get along before Harper and federal Conservatives won the 2006 federal election.

The short piece in the Herald is a reminder that with Williams, everything was intensely nasty and intensely personal all the time.  No one should be surprised that Williams told this story to a convention at which he spoke. The story is old and telling it served no apparent purpose but that is the level at which Williams worked.

The Familiar Tale

On top of nasty and personal, the other defining characteristic of federal-provincial relations since 2003 has been the tendency of the provincial government to approach particular issues without a clearly defined set of objectives.  As a result, the provincial government frequently shifts positions and is typically unsuccessful.

We’ll have a closer look at the specific issues in the CETA documents on Tuesday.  For now, note that the three issues are not related at all to European free trade.  Each of them also have their own history.

SAR, for example, is entirely a fabricated issue that tried to take an issue that is entirely provincially funded and turn it into a federal issue.

Hibernia is an old chestnut but one that has no apparent larger policy purpose behind it.  Still, you can go back to 2008 and see the sort of petty sniping and  misrepresentations.that generally have characterised federal-provincial relations under the Conservatives

The  separate offshore safety agency is an issue that the provincial government well knows does not fit with the existing accord.  They could achieve the policy goal in other ways.  For some reason, the provincial government has allowed other people to define this issue in a way the provincial government cannot win.

For good measure, the free trade talks also included a bit of personal drama with  accusations of federal perfidy.  The whole thing seemed like an attempt to manufacture the kind of personal affront that worked well for Williams personally but that did nothing effective for provincial policy objectives.

Flips, flops, and fumbles

The Conservatives set the tone for federal-provincial relations with the 2004-2005 campaign to change the extra federal transfers beyond the ones contained in the 1985 Atlantic Accord.  The Conservatives changed position repeatedly and didn’t start actual negotiations a until forced into it in late 2004.  By the end, the Conservatives accepted a single cheque  that was worth far less than they had originally sought.  The Conservatives applied the cash to the unfunded government pension liability but that never lasted.  By boosting the public service as part of their wider financial mismanagement, the Conservatives erased whatever benefit the single federal transfer gave.  Seven years later,  the unfunded pension liability is larger than it has ever been. 

The Conservatives continued the approach in all their discussions on Equalization,  a pattern SRBP noted in a very popular post titled “Equalization flips, flops and fumbles.”  The search for a new head of the offshore board is the same tale of shifting positions, as revealed in the court case that the successful candidate – Max Ruelokke – brought against the provincial government.

A year and a half ago, Kathy Dunderdale said she found it very frustrating to deal with the federal government.  When you look more closely at the last stages of the European trade talks you can see why. That’s what we’ll do on Tuesday.