16 May 2014

The Fruits of a Poisonous Shrub #nlpoli

Senator Fabian Manning says that the 2008 Anything but Conservative campaign is stilling hurting the province in dealing with the federal government.

“There's no doubt in my mind that the ABC campaign,”  Manning told CBC’s Fisheries Broadcast,” [that] we pay a price for that, and people can shrug it off and say, 'That's just an excuse,' but I've been around this game too long now to not know that without a voice here at the table we are at a major disadvantage." [via CBC]

The disadvantage Manning referred to was the lack of a regional minister in the current cabinet who represents a riding in Newfoundland and Labrador. Some people might be tempted to dismiss Manning’s comments at sour grapes. After all, the ABC campaign cost Manning not only his seat in the House but also his chance for a seat in cabinet.

On that point, though, Manning is right. The regional minister is a key player in Ottawa and the province has undoubtedly suffered to one degree another by not having such an influential voice at the federal cabinet table.

Newfoundlanders and Labradorians do have some capable representatives inside the Conservative caucus. They are sitting in the senate, though, and for some reason, Prime Minister Stephen Harper hasn’t appointed one of them to cabinet. That limits their influence.

In  a wider sense, Manning is wrong if he is trying to suggest that the ABC campaign somehow led unnamed people in Ottawa to punish the people of Newfoundland and Labrador.  That’s been a convenient excuse Danny Williams and others have used to try and deflect attention from the damage the ABC campaign did to the province’s interests and the provincial government’s influence in federal circles.

But it’s just an excuse. The federal government is big.  Canada is huge and the issues affecting the country are equally large in number and wildly varied.  Running the country isn’t easy, therefore, and any government struggles to deal with the numerous demands it faces.  Petty, personal vendettas just aren’t all that likely to be major policy drivers in the federal government.

The challenge for politicians representing Newfoundland and Labrador in the federal government has always been to make sure that local interests get heard through the sheer noise of Ottawa.   The other side of the job for federal politicians is spotting opportunities in the federal government that would benefit Newfoundlanders and Labradorians. A seat at the cabinet table both those things easier.

You’ll notice, by the way, that we are not speaking here of advancing the provincial government’s agenda. That’s entirely separate. We are talking here about ensuring that Newfoundlanders and Labradorians are properly represented in the federal government, the same way that all Canadians are or should be represented there.  The ABC campaign screwed that up entirely.

The ABC campaign was just one fruit of the poisonous tree of provincial Conservative policy toward the federal government since 2003.  Danny Williams and the Conservatives did not have a goal or set of goals.  They lacked the discipline and professionalism to pursue anything systematically.  Instead, they changed directions and priorities making it almost impossible to find agreement with the federal government. That was true of the Equalization talks in 2004,  the battle over the offshore board appoint in 2006, or, more recently, the free trade talks with Europe.

And what wasn’t erratic was childish.  There is no other word for Danny Williams’ decision to call the Prime Minister “Steve”. The stupidity of provincial Conservative policy hasn’t been  partisan. They’ve acted the same way with both Liberal and Conservative federal administrations.  The result has been that federal politicians and bureaucrats alike have simply tuned out the provincial Conservatives except on specific projects or issues.

Regular readers will recall that your humble e-scribbler called the ABC campaign by another name, the Family Feud.  That’s because the dispute mostly affected Conservatives in the province.  A majority of Newfoundlanders and Labradorians have seldom supported the federal Conservatives.  The only voters the ABC campaign affected were Conservatives:  a simple assessment of the vote patterns in the province will show that clearly.

Not surprisingly, the continued Williams-directed war by the provincial Conservatives with the federal Conservatives has done the most damage to the provincial party itself. They are the ones who have been starved of the sort of campaign skills and infrastructure that federal parties normally share with their provincial counterparts.

The provincial Conservatives did nothing in the meantime on their own to develop the sort of modern campaign infrastructure parties need. You can see the results of the destructive impact of the Williams-inspired approach by the Conservative loss of bedrock in 2011 and the recent loss in Virginia Waters. The New Democrats and Liberals ran better campaigns on the ground and beat the Conservatives dramatically, even if the vote margin in Virginia Waters was small.

While that’s bad news for provincial Conservatives, there is good news for the people of Newfoundland and Labrador.  The problem isn;t a fundamental one in Ottawa or St. John’s.  It’s entirely the result of one party’s incompetence.  Change the administration in St. John’s and things should get better.