10 August 2015

The name they fear #nlpoli

Cast your mind back to April 2007

In his ongoing penchant for fighting with everyone and for small-mindedness,  Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Danny Williams decides he will only refer to the new Prime Minister as “Steve”.

Williams made no bones about the fact his decision was very personal and intended to be insulting.

At the time, Williams was locked in his ongoing battle with the federal government over Equalization payments.  Stephen Harper had made a comment in the House of Commons that Williams didn’t like.  Williams responded in his characteristically personal, petty way.

It was yet another public flare-up in a highly personal war with Harper.  The first took place in October 2006 at the provincial Conservative convention in Gander.  One local newspaper reported that the Premier’s brother had corralled the federal party president in the parking lot at the local airport and given him the thousand PSI finger.  He reputedly he said something like “you’re in Dannyland.”

For his part, Williams also deployed one of his own usual tactics with Harper in 2006.  He spoke publicly about what had been supposedly a private conversation.  Williams typically gave only a small part of the conversation,  just enough to justify his outrage and to portray himself as someone with a legitimate beef.

During the 2006 election, Harper had pledged to remove non-renewable resources from the Equalization program.  By the fall, it was clear harper would have a hard time doing that and was backing off his commitment.

Williams threatened – in this quote via CBC – that if Harper didn’t deliver,  “when those federal election results come in across the country [in the next election] and they come to Newfoundland and Labrador, there better be a big goose egg for the Conservatives if they haven't delivered on their promise.”

In the spring,  Williams was still bitching that - despite the provincial government’s explosion in cash from oil royalties – the province was hard-done-by since it was losing out on federal Equalization hand-outs. 

In the House of Commons, Harper took a question from the opposition and took a mild poke at Williams.  As CBC reported at the time:

"The government of Newfoundland and Labrador has tabled a budget today. It involved record spending, paying down the debt and decreasing taxes," Harper said while responding to a question from Liberal MP Scott Simms.

"Sounds like a good Conservative budget to me. Also sounds like they're having awful rough treatment and they want it to continue."

Williams lashed back with the “Steve” thing.

Few noticed at the time, and certainly no one in the conventional media picked up on the fact that in Williams’ letter to the federal party leaders in December 2005, the provincial government had demanded the complete inclusion of natural resource revenues in calculating Equalization:


They also wanted compensation for running enormous per capita deficits.  The 2005 transfer deal was supposed to be tied to debt reduction.  The next year Williams was looking for a way of getting extra cash from Ottawa for running big debt loads.

All this time later, there’s no small irony in the fact that the federal Conservatives are locked in another form of political dispute.  This time it’s an election campaign.  The party strategists have decided – for whatever reason – to refer to the Liberal leader solely by his first name. Some people often said that Old Twitchy and Steve were too much alike to ever be friends.

You can also double down on the irony in this name thing.  A Telegram editor has decided that this sort of stuff is small-minded and petty.  “I don’t think I want someone who operates at the level of Internet troll to be our prime minister,” said Russell Wangersky, the author of a Williams hagiography in 2010.

One of the differences between Harper and Williams is that Harper faces a gaggle of reporters some of whom will take issue with something like this '”Justin” episode.

And in the United States,  the media are having a field day with the Republican front-runner’s extreme and abusive behaviour.  Even Republicans are turning against Donald Trump.  Two degrees of separation aside:  Anyone else remember when Old Twitchy was the opening act for The Hair?

In Newfoundland and Labrador, we can only imagine what it would have been like if more people – the conventional media included – had actually raised questions about the Premier’s claims, policies, and behaviour instead of enabling him at every opportunity. 

How different might the world have been if just one of them had dared suggest the Premier or his staff were acting like an Internet troll.  We can only imagine the reply:  break the province’s privacy laws as conventional media reported the personal smears but ignored the bigger issues, maybe?

It’s all fun to speculate, but the sad reality is that back when Danny decided the most grown-up thing to do as Premier was call the Prime Minister “Steve,” the story got coverage, not condemnation.

Just to note how strong the conformist tendency is, just note how many people will read this and use the larger, largely imaginary “us against them” fight against “injustice” to rationalize their behaviour then.

Remember that in both the federal and provincial examples, what we are talking about are political tactics designed to appeal to a particular audience or to achieve a particular end. They are related to the popular and public attitudes to the extent that those attitudes are what the tactics are designed to influence.

“Justin” is just another way of attacking the guy’s character.  The Conservatives want to continue the attack on the perception of Trudeau as a potential prime minister. The ads the Conservatives have been running have worked very well among voters. 

Taking the “Trudeau” part of the name out helps to reduce connections to a famous father.  He is not Trudeau,  as we often refer to adults, but “Justin”,  implicitly the child or an inexperienced adult.

The policy itself has become a story and that just spreads the whole message even farther.

That’s a huge part of what happened with “Steve”.  The childish name-calling was a way of getting media attention to the dispute and of running Harper down personally.  The theory Williams had was that this sort of thing put pressure on people to settle. Abusing people personally  - or in the case of Hydro-Quebec, an entire province - was a way of pressuring people and putting the focus on them. 

Within Newfoundland and Labrador, the practice often worked. Outside the province, as with Harper, it didn’t work, at least not in a positive way.  All Williams got was a pissed off prime minister, just the same way that people who used a classic Williams tactic on Williams just got a twitchy, angry shoulder instead of what they wanted.

Let’s not forget, either, that while people are talking about the superficial, childish stuff, they aren’t talking about what is actually going on. 

“Steve” and “Justin” are a means to an end.