Exactly one year ago, the provincial government was in a controversy over its part in the European free trade deal. The Conservatives were heralding the great deal, including a $400 million fisheries development fund.
The opposition Liberals asked for details. The provincial Conservatives and then-Premier Kathy Dunderdale wouldn’t release any information. On December 5, 2013, Premier Kathy Dunderdale relented and released 80 pages of letters and e-mails between federal and provincial officials about the talks.
A year later, the provincial Conservatives are still in a political quagmire over the deal. This time the problem is that there isn’t any deal. Premier Paul Davis said on Monday that the whole thing was just a matter of crossing a few tees and dotting some eyes. On Tuesday, , Davis and a gaggle of his cabinet ministers said the negotiations on the fund were going no where. He needed to take it to the Prime Minister and so Davis and Stephen Harper would meet on Wednesday.
That was fine except that the Prime Minister’s Office said there’d been no meeting scheduled. Harper was scheduled to be in Montreal for Jean Belliveau’s funeral.
Davis also released the same 80 pages Dunderdale had released - the handwritten note on page one is dated Dec 5, 2013 - plus another 20 or so besides. The second batch of documents was supposed to prove the provincial government’s claim that the federal government has backed away from a commitment made last year to provide $280 million toward a fisheries development fund,
The problem for the provincial government is that the letters do not support their claim.
The provincial government contends that in “June 2013, our governments agreed that, in exchange for the province agreeing to lift minimum processing requirements (MPRs) for the European Union (EU), the Federal Government and the province would establish a fund that would provide for total expenditure of $400 million based on a 70/30 federal/provincial cost share.”
Federal trade minister Ed Fast expressly stated in a letter from May 2013 that
Note the phrase “up to” $400 million. Note as well the express connection between the money and people who were displaced from employment as a result of the loss of minimum processing requirements. That clearly contradicts the provincial claim that there “was no requirement that the funding would be contingent on demonstrating any negative impact arising from the removal of MPRs.”
The federal condition on the total amount of money is stated repeatedly throughout the correspondence, as is the connection to MPRs. The only place where the provincial claim appears is in provincial correspondence. Either the provincial politicians believed what they wanted to believe or, as with Davis’ meeting with Harper, they just carried on despite knowing the rights of things.
The provincial government is now threatening to withdraw its support for the European trade deal based on the supposed federal change. On the surface this looks like a rather obvious political fraud, an effort to invent a confrontation with the federal government in order to boost the provincial Conservatives’ flagging popularity. That could well be part of what is going on.
In a larger sense, though, we are seeing an old pattern of behaviour playing out yet again. One has only to read the correspondence to see it. As SRBP noted last year, the provincial government did not have a clear set of objectives when it entered the free trade talks in the first place. They tried to tack on all sorts of demands unrelated to the trade deal. Their demands were ludicrous and ultimately unsuccessful. This is the same pattern of behaviour they have displayed since 2003.
The difference – and hence the problem for the Conservatives – is that no one is willing to believe their claims about everyone else’s perfidy or about their own righteousness. The false claim about a meeting with the Prime Minister, for example, makes Davis and his staff look incompetent. And while it might have been hard for some to imagine that Danny Williams cocked things up, they are quite willing to accept the notion that Kathy Dunderdale or Paul Davis has screwed up, even if all three did or said exactly the same thing.
The thing about the European trade deal is that it opens up significant new markets to local exports. It is exactly what the provincial economy needed. Danny Williams was stupid to stay away from the talks about billions in trade on the utterly ridiculous excuse that he was standing up for the inherent right of a handful of people to bash seals over the head for a few tens’ of millions. The Conservatives were smart to reverse course after Williams ran from office. CETA is strategically important to Newfoundland and Labrador. It could have been the political victory the Conservatives needed to regain their political momentum.
If the Conservatives change course again and abandon the free trade deal due to nothing but their own incompetence, they would prove themselves to be even stupider than they were before.
But then again, if they had half a political clue, the Conservatives wouldn’t be staring into the political abyss come polling day in 2015. . Danny Williams tried desperately to destroy the entire political opposition in 2007. He failed. How epic it is that eight years later, the Liberals, under one of the guys Williams worked hard to defeat in 2007, stand a good chance of sweeping Williams’ party from the political map in the next general election.
The Greeks couldn’t have written a better political story than the one unfolding in Newfoundland and Labrador these days.