12 September 2014

The Spectators and the “Me” Generation #nlpoli

The official media advisory describes the event at Confederation Building this morning as an opportunity for Premier Tom Marshall to thank public servants “for the support provided by their work over his time as Minister and Premier.”

In reality, this is another one of the grandiose celebrations that have become the trademark of Conservative Premiers first elected in 2003.  Danny Williams gave himself an enormous going-away show when he decided to leave office suddenly and unexpectedly in 2010.  Kathy Dunderdale, Williams’ hand-picked successor, did much the same thing when she decided to leave office suddenly and unexpectedly earlier this year.

And now the third member of the Williams dynasty,  his trusty and well-beloved right hand, is going to make a grand spectacle of his own in the main lobby of the Confederation Building on this the occasion of his imminent departure from office.

Premiers before now didn’t do anything like this.  The most they worked up was a simple gathering of reporters and an announcement in the form of a short statement. And that was for the ones like Smallwood, Moores, Peckford, Wells, and Tobin who resigned from office. Tom Rideout,  Beaton Tulk, and Roger Grimes did it all in private.  Everyone knew that Rideout and Grimes were going because they’d lost an election.  Beaton Tulk’s term was generally known as a fill-in, like Marshall for sure and in some respects like Dunderdale, so there was no reason to make a big deal out things.

Now if you look back at some of those individuals, they were powerful individuals who had had a profound impact on the province during their time in office. Their decision to leave office was a huge political event.  Frank Moores, for example, was only the second Premier of the province after Confederation.  Brian Peckford had run the provincial government during a tumultuous decade of national constitutional wrangles and an agreement with Ottawa about offshore resources that was arguably one of the most important moments in the province’s history.

Danny Williams gathered a massive audience of cabinet ministers, Conservative caucus members, political staffers, and assorted bootlickers and arsekissers. He gave them a speech full of praise for Himself and His Great Works. The word “I” appears no fewer than 78 times in the speech as Williams told us all about his feelings and his thoughts.  He quoted John Kennedy, and in the fashion of American presidents ended by asking the only power greater than Hisself to bless the province as a whole.  His second last sentence showed that he would be personal and paternalistic to the end:  “I will miss you.”

That American fashion is very much the style Williams aped all the way through his political career. The April 2001 party convention when he took over formally as party leader was like an American presidential nomination convention. The party described the speech he delivered as his “inaugural” address.  The 2003 Conservative election campaign was all ego, dominated by massive pictures of Danny Williams’ head, much like the actor Arnold’s campaign when he ran for Governor of California.  The campaign platform was Williams’ personal set of promises.  It was all very presidential in style.

Kathy Dunderdale did much the same thing throughout her time in office and in the 2011 campaign.  Her people called her first speech an “inaugural address”. When she decided to get out,  Dunderdale also gave herself an event, complete with a speech – shorter than her patron’s – although still packed with 29 “I”s and Dunderdale’s recitation of her feelings.  There is a video of the spectacle, if you missed it.

And now Marshall is following suit. 

The easiest observation about these spectacles is that they are part of a trend to Americanize local politics.  Certainly there is an element of that,  just as the Conservatives have tended to ape their Republican cousins in the United States on everything from paranoia about outsiders to savage personal attacks against their opponents.  What we are seeing in this instance is something a bit different.

If we look at the campaigning, then the similarities are obvious.  They are the same or similar because the basic dynamics of an election are the same in both the United States and Canada.  Politicians have adapted American techniques in several countries.  You can translate the techniques from one campaign to another pretty easily.

The idea of inaugurations is a bit different.  Those are more specific to the local political system.  The Americans developed these inaugurals to celebrate a feature of their political system.  It is about the peaceful change of power from one elected president to another.  In that sense it is a community event and while the presidential inaugurals have grown into these amazingly expensive extravaganzas, they are,  at the core, about the institution of president.

What Williams and his chosen successors have been doing is something else.  These things are all about the individual.  The egomania at the heart of Williams’ time in politics is pretty easy to spot.  Dunderdale, too, managed to display her own egotism. In its most extreme form,  Dunderdale’s egocentric obsession came across in her explosion about attacks supposedly made on her. It’s why they both embraced the whole idea that they were smarter than everyone else,  or had lots of smart people around them, or what have you.  They turned pretty well everything into a personal issue in one way or another.

To be honest, it’s a bit surprising to see Marshall succumb to this sort of thing, even if it is in the guise of thanking the province’s public servants.  Marshall had a chance to do that when he announced the pension deal.  After that, what else could Marshall possibly have to say or do?  The clue that this isn’t about saying thanks is the timing.  The Conservatives will finally pick Marshall’s permanent successor this weekend. 

He might be out of the office as early as Monday morning, but even if he is around for a while longer, the political focus is going to shift quickly to the new guy and the future.  Friday is the last day when Marshall can command the stage and make some news for himself.

But seriously,  does he really need to do that?  Even if we accept at face value that Tom feels a deep-rooted need to thank the people who work for the provincial government,  it takes a supreme level of confidence in ones own self-importance to organise some kind of staged event so that you can thank public servants and that they wouldn’t take as just another politician appearing on province-wide television.

Marshall could have shot a short video and e-mailed it to every public servant in the province:  a personal message straight from Tom to the recipient.  It’s actually easier to do than what Marshall’s got in mind and there is the off-chance that people might just take it as a genuine expression of personal gratitude.

In this case, Marshall let the media know he was going to deliver a big thank-you.  Right off the bat Marshall’s people have made it a public event with him at the centre.  The public servants aren’t the focus.  Tom is. 

Just like Kathy was the focus in January and Danny was the focus in November 2010. 

Presidential inaugurals are about “us” and the institution of the presidency.  These things that Danny and his followers are doing are purely about the politician individually.  “We”, whether it’s the people of the province or public servants just a recurring role as Audience member (not credited) on the Republic of Dan, then the sequels Dunderdale, and Marshalltown. It is all in the style captured so eloquently, if inadvertently, by the laudatory video from 2008 that copied one produced in the United States and based on a speech by Barack Obama.

The problem with all this is not just the self-indulgence or repulsive ego-obsession that sits at the heart of it.  The problem is that we can see that the Conservatives collectively lack any sense of our province,  its history,  and the institutions we share.  They have regarded them all as their personal property to do with as they see fit,  rather than as something they are holding in trust for the rest of us. 

On the simplest level  this has comes across like the behaviour of the fellow, very close to the former Premier, who accosted the president of the federal Conservatives in October 2006 with the reminder that he was in Dannyland now.  There are stories of other, similar encounters with others.  Williams himself routinely attacked and insulted anyone and everyone.  Generally, he could be classless and tacky when the job required civility,  judgment and diplomacy.

Those sorts of things may seem trivial to some.  They aren’t, really, but let’s grant that those actions reflected only on the person and not the office or the rest of us.  The Conservatives have acted from the beginning like they own the place, and that is where this really has been a problem.  Over the last four years, but especially the last eight months,  the Conservatives have put the public interest second to their political interest repeatedly.  The way they have passed around the Premier’s job, shuffled the ministry at will, and the rest of it shows that plainly.  Muskrat Falls is a fine example of putting partisan interests above the public, but the persistent overspending, patronage politics, pork-barrelling and all the rest are much better ones.  They say over and over they’ve done it all for us,  but we are just bystanders,  just spectators at the show in which they are the stars.