09 September 2015

Finding the voice of the next generation #nlpoli

“My Government will harness the desire among Newfoundlanders and Labradorians to cultivate greater cultural, financial and moral autonomy vis-à-vis Ottawa.”

That’s from the 2007 throne speech. 

At the time, the language started a few people.  That’s odd because Danny Williams was basically building up to that point for six years.  He started with a speech in Halifax in 2001 shortly after he became leader of the provincial Conservatives.  He ramped up the rhetoric and the tension through 2004 and into 2005. 

Then in 2006, he went to war again, this time with Stephen Harper.  It was the Conservative re-election strategy and came complete with an anthem composed in 2004.

What’s weird about the 2007 throne speech language in hindsight is not that the Conservatives used it or that some people found it surprising.

Take a look at the second use of the word autonomy and see if you can spot the oddity.
“My Government will also move forward independently to strengthen Newfoundland and Labrador’s financial autonomy and fiscal capacity to meet our own obligations by diversifying and growing our own economy, reducing Newfoundland and Labrador’s burden of debt on our children, pursuing a fair fiscal balance between levels of government, and reducing our dependence on Equalization payments.”
Think about it for a second and you will realise that none of it was true.

The Conservative objective in the 2004 fight with Ottawa was a permanent Equalization-type transfer payment equal to provincial oil revenues.

The goal in the Equalization war of 2006 to 2008 was a permanent Equalization transfer with additional compensation the more debt the provincial government racked up.

After that speech the provincial government increased spending by astronomical levels and added more and more and more debt on the public.  People in this province owe more money in 2015 than they did in 2003 and if the current Conservative plan holds, they will owe even more.

And if you step back and think of the string of begging letters to Ottawa, fishery reform,  a new prison, or paving roads in Labrador,  the provincial Conservatives never once did anything to put their pledge of autonomy into action.

They tried to shift the burden of search and rescue in the Burton Winters case from the provincial government to the federal government.

In the European free trade talks, they tried to extort more cash from Ottawa for – you guessed it – fishery reform.

Even new ferries for the provincial transportation system were supposed to come with a huge federal bonus, in the form of a waiver on an import duty.

And when the Equalization offsets ran out in 2012,  the provincial government blamed the public debt not on the fact they hadn’t  reduced “Newfoundland and Labrador’s burden of debt on our children” or ourselves but on the fact the federal government had cut off the cheques.

The Conservatives used the words of sovereignty in the 2000s but they took none of the actions. That’s a fundamental contradiction that just screams out at you. 

What’s most remarkable about the period between 1995 and 2005 is exactly that contradiction.  On the one hand you had the widespread  complaints about the harm supposedly done to Newfoundland and Labrador by Confederation.  The 2003 Royal Commission chaired by Vic Young was little more than a litany of the old complaints, many of them long since disproven.

The widespread social and economic dislocation caused by the collapse of the cod fishery added to the sense of unease across the province.  By 2003, there was a pronounced disparity between the northeast Avalon with its government and new oil money.

But the solution of people like Vic Young and Craig Dobbin was  not to look forward, as Brian Peckford had done, to the day when the province wouldn’t need federal handouts.  Rather,  the Millennialists were firmly rooted in the past.  They wanted reparations from Ottawa and, in the case of Quebec, they wanted revenge. 

Danny Williams and the Conservatives came to office having capitalised on that groundswell of public unease.  They used the language of independence but their efforts were to maintain provincial dependence on the federal government.  Rather than bringing a New approach, as they had promised,  the Conservatives brought a very familiar one. 

It’s almost as though the prospect of attaining what people had dreamed of for so long – being a “have province – actually frightened some people in the province so much they fought against it.  Wade Locke revealed in February 2005 that his forecast was that the province would be off Equalization by 2010 at the latest.  His earliest estimate, depending on oil prices was 2006 or 2007.  As the day of autonomy actually grew closer,  the Conservatives fought more and more fervently against it.

Danny Williams kept up the shrill language until ran from office three years after his autonomist throne speech.  Lest you think that he and his colleagues were an anomaly, remember that they were wildly popular.  Plenty of business people,  academics, and journalists knew about the disparity in the province.  They understood the need for reform in the fishery.  They grasped that what the Conservatives wanted in 2004 was fundamentally a fraud.  They could read a spreadsheet, understood Equalization, and had figured out that oil and mineral prices went down as well as up. 

And yet they supported Williams and the Conservatives unquestioningly.  The St. John’s Board of Trade is  a perfect example of this. Or kept their mouths shut.  Either way, it comes out to the same thing.

.Historian Jerry Bannister mulled over these ideas a few years ago in an essay titled A River Runs Through It:Churchill Falls and the End of Newfoundland History.  “he resignation of Danny Williams marked more than the end of a political era,”  wrote Bannister.  “It marked the dénouement of a political narrative that stretched back over 40 years.”

What we might consider now is the extent to which the coming provincial election will also mark the change of the provincial political narrative.  “For two generations, the story of Newfoundland had been one of an incessant struggle for economic survival. The achievement of ‘have’ status brought an end to that story….In a figurative sense, a history ends when its dominant narrative ends. A new narrative will no doubt emerge in Newfoundland and Labrador from the unending dialogue between the past and the present, but it is not here yet.”

Not here yet, but is it coming?