20 November 2014

The Federal Boogeyman #nlpoli

The Liberals kept poking at Premier Paul Davis in the House of Assembly on Wednesday about the European free trade deal announced last year.

Specifically, Liberal leader Dwight Ball asked Davis for the second day in a row about a joint federal-provincial fund under the deal that would see the federal government spend $280 million and the provincial government drop in $120 million on something to do with fisheries.  We say “something to do with fisheries” because there really hasn’t been much substance to go with the announcement in the year since the provincial government announced the thing.

Tuesday’s questions led to Davis admitting there was some kind of unspecified problem with the talks.  As the Telegram reported,  Davis told reporters outside the House that he “wouldn’t say [the funding deal was] falling apart, but having not been able to reach a finalized agreement yet is troubling.”

On Wednesday,  Ball asked if Davis had met at any point with the federal minister responsible for the deal with the Europeans or with the regional minister for Newfoundland and Labrador in the federal cabinet.

The thing about Davis’ reply is that he didn’t give a straight answer.  Instead, he said that the provincial minister responsible could answer questions.  So Ball tried again.  This time, Davis stayed in his chair and let the provincial minister give a long-winded answer that just said everything is fine and the whole thing is still on track.

It took a third question to get Davis to say that he had “already had one discussion with the Prime Minister since I took office here. The Prime Minister and I intend to have further discussions on CETA.”  Not exactly clear, eh?  That one discussion could have been a congratulatory telephone call.  The promise of future talks would be the promise to talk later on, at some unspecified time.

The fuzzy language on Wednesday seemed to be an effort to counteract Davis’ comments from Tuesday.  And that’s what is both troubling and confirmation that something is amiss in the provincial government and its relationship with the feds.


To be sure,  no one should be surprised that the trade deal isn’t finished yet.  These things take a while to sort out.  Nor should anyone be really surprised that the federal and provincial governments haven’t got all the details ironed out on an aspect of an international trade deal that, itself, isn’t finished yet.  There’d be no reason on the face of it to think that anything is amiss.

Well, no reason to worry unless the premier were to say to reporters that he was troubled by the lack of progress on a deal one day while the next day he refused to talk about it and left it to the leading cabinet minister to insist everything is fine.  This sounds suspiciously like the difference we saw in 2013 between Kathy Dunderdale and her ministers over the deal.

What you are left with is the sense that there’s some sort of dispute within the ministry.  There’s also a problem between the provincial and federal governments.  That’s not so surprising.  The provincial Conservatives seem to have a chronic problem getting anything done with the federal governmentKathy Dunderdale herself complained at one point she didn’t know how to deal with the crowd in Ottawa.  It left her frustrated.

What’s ironic about that statement is that Dunderdale and her cabinet were much more successful in managing federal-provincial relations than the same crowd were when Danny Williams was around.  That might run against what you think, but a bit of review would tell you that this is correct.

Let’s start with the European trade deal itself and work out way backwards.  The Conservatives actually managed to get in on the deal and squeeze a few hundred million bucks out of the federal government to help the fishing industry in the province take advantage of the trade deal when it comes.  There’s no question the European deal will be good for the province.  It gives local industry access to a huge new market.  It gets rid of European tariffs that kept local fish products from gaining any foothold in the market.  The federal cash will come in handy.

Then there’s the federal loan guarantee.  Even with the bit of foolishness right at the end,  the fact is that the provincial Conservatives were able to land a significant deal to build Muskrat Falls.  They got it from Stephen Harper, the supposedly evil anti-Newfoundland demon.

The business about search and rescue was a bungled bit of political management.  Kathy Dunderdale and Fairity O’Brien foolishly went along with the move to blame the Burton Winters tragedy on the federal government when it was just a tragedy that was really nobody’s fault.

Before that, things were pretty much a mess.  But what you have probably noticed is that the period of the biggest mess is the time when Danny Williams was running things.  No accident, that.  Williams’ highly aggressive, highly mercurial,  acidic,  nasty, and miserable approach just didn’t work.  he made everything personal, all the time and never missed a chance to get nasty and miserable about it.  As his interviews for the ridiculous NFB film about him shows, he is still more concerned to puff up his own ego than actually accomplish anything. 

The story about the meeting he had with Stephen Harper  in October 2006 is about Danny the Great Fighter, not about the truth of what occurred. We only have Danny’s account and, as history teaches us, Danny Williams is nothing if not a great teller of fairy tales. Nor was Williams’ actions really about the provincial interests since, the result of Williams’ relentless campaign was failure.  He set out, for example, pledging to mount a national campaign to defeat Stephen Harper.  By the time the whole thing was over,  Stephen Harper had a comfortable majority and Williams completely reinvented his campaign to try and distract from Williams’ is total failure. ABC was a complete bust.

Williams wrote letters to federal political leaders in every election during the time he was Premier.  The letters contained great lists of what were supposed the provincial government’s big issues.  They are, if nothing else, a record of Williams’ impotence.  Aside from the routine funding agreements that sometimes got in there,  Williams got nothing that he was looking for.  There was no early retirement package for fisheries workers, for example.  On Equalization, Williams never got anything he went looking for, no matter that he argued at one point both for the complete inclusion of non-renewable resources in the formula and for the complete exclusion of the same resources.

Then there is the great war with Paul Martin that started Williams’ tenure.  Williams set out looking for something that was a nonsense.  No one with half a clue could ever have tried to get the federal government to let the province receive 100% of offshore royalties, as it did,  and at the same time collect an Equalization payment equal in dollar value to oil.  it was an insanity.

Yet Williams persisted in his campaign for a year.  Paul martin and the federal Liberals put the basic outline of a deal in front of Williams in the spring of 2004.  Williams ignored it in favour of asking for something he already had, namely 100% of offshore royalties.  By October, Williams had a better outline of a deal.  Loyola Sullivan spoke glowingly of it but a mere two days later, Williams was on another of his venomous tirades.  After another rounds of talks, Williams was ripping flags from flagpoles and refusing to go back to talks until the federal government caved in.

His flag stunt failed utterly.  And with Nova Scotia on the verge of a deal, Williams made a panicked telephone called to the prime Minister’s Office to get talks going again:  all his demands were unmet.  Williams walked off with a cheque and deal that was actually worse than the one he had spat on the previous October.

The reason for Williams’ persistent failure was Williams himself.  He arrogantly believed he alone knew anything. He dismissed anything that didn’t fit with his views.  Williams could never negotiate but preferred instead to dictate.  And when that didn’t work he insulted people and threw childish tantrums.

That’s not the popular perception, especially among people who wrongly believe that Williams won in 2004 and subsequently.  There’s no small irony that the same Conservatives who peddle the Danny Williams Myth are screwing over his successors in the process.  There’s no chance that Davis can compete with the Williams Myth, no matter that Davis and his colleagues have generally been far more successful in dealing with the federal government than Danny Williams ever was.

*Apologies for the mix-up in days for Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday.