12 October 2015

The ABCs of ABC #nlpoli


In 2004, Danny Williams fought for three months against a federal government decision that had been settled – at least for the federal government – earlier in the year as part of the usual budget cycle.

Williams got the money the federal government had allocated but won the domestic war for public opinion.

In 2007,  Williams and his provincial Conservatives launched a second political holy war against the federal government’s budget decisions.  Williams waged a much longer war,  lost it, but was widely credited at home with a victory.

There were other similarities


In both cases, the provincial Conservatives used the language of nationalism as an integral part of their political messaging even as they pursued policies that were diametrically at odds with it.

The Conservative throne speech in 2007 identified increased “autonomy” from the federal government as the provincial government’s central policy goal.  Yet, their federal-provincial policy goals involved increased dependence of the province on federal transfer payments.

Begging letters Williams sent to Ottawa during each federal election listed all the ways the federal government should increase its spending in the province.  For example, Williams and his ministers repeatedly excused their failure to spend money on provincial services in Labrador because of supposed federal failures to come across with cash. 

And as recently as 2012,  the Conservatives blamed their growing deficits on a loss of federal transfer payments rather than admit to the simple truth:  they were spending more than they were taking in.

Williams eliminates dissidents

There were differences, as well.  In the fight against the federal Liberals,  Williams’ caucus was diverse. It included politicians with strong power bases of their own.  But by the spring of 2007,  Williams’ fight for political hegemony within his own caucus was nearly complete.

Williams ejected Fabian Manning from the provincial Conservative caucus in early 2005.  He ran for the federal Conservative sand became the member of parliament for Avalon.  In the middle of 2006,  former party leader Ed Byrne quit cabinet and eventually left politics after being identified by the Auditor General in a probe of improper spending in the House of Assembly. In December 2006,  finance minister Loyola Sullivan quit Williams’ cabinet abruptly and without explanation.,  He took an appointment with the federal Conservatives..

That left Williams with unchallenged control of his own caucus.  He appointed the compliant Tom Marshall as finance minister.  Williams gave his most important portfolio – natural resources – to the equally compliant Kathy Dunderdale.  The only potential challenger Williams faced in 2007 within in his own caucus was former premier Tom Rideout.  By 2008  Rideout would be gone as well in a confrontation with Williams over patronage spending on road paving.

Williams faced no threat from the opposition benches at all.  In the 2004 fight, the Liberals had actually supported Williams if only to gain a small delight from the misery Williams caused John Efford. Former Premier Roger Grimes quit politics in 2005 leaving the Liberals to run through a string of disastrous leaders. 

Without anyone to challenge him, Williams popularity climbed in the polls. By 2007,  the Liberals were defeated in all but name only.  The lone New Democrat in the House posed no threat at all, whether it was Jack Harris or  Lorraine Michael, who replaced Harris.  Williams was popular and in the inbred world of Newfoundland politics that also made him right.  No politicians would challenge a popular Premier no matter what he did.

Who will fight for you?

As his dominance grew,  Williams played the fighting Newfoundlander schtick to the hilt.  He attacked the Americans for daring to send a rocket toward his fiefdom. Never mind that rockets from Cape Canaveral had flown safely down the same route for decades or that American officials planned the flights to minimise the chance of accident or had devices to destroy the rocket in flight if need be. 


Williams was mortified and called a news conference to make his hysterical reaction known to the world. Efforts to manage the entirely artificial crisis rapidly turned to farce.  A briefing organised through the American consulate in Halifax fell apart as it turned out no Newfoundland government officials  - including an engineering professor from Memorial University with little useful experience in dealing with these issues – had the required security clearances.

Ultimately, and with no demonstrable threat,  Williams wanted to order a ordered a halt to offshore production and evacuated crews fro the rigs until the flight was over.  [In the end,  he relented and let production continue]. he fictitious crisis passed,  Williams went on to other things and the Americans went back to firing rockets over the Grand Banks as if nothing had happened.

Other fights were no less bizarre.  In the midst of the search to find a new head for the joint federal-provincial offshore regulatory board,  Williams suddenly changed his mind about how the whole affair ought to be run.  His preferred candidate failed in the first search.  A committee appointed to find a candidate turned down Williams’ candidate a second time in favour of yet another one who was much better qualified.

Williams dithered and delayed to the point where the successful candidate was forced to go to court.  The judge decided in favour of the successful candidate.  He scolded the provincial government – that is, Williams – for the abuses to which the successful applicant had been subjected.  The final decision also revealed that the federal government had offered to accommodate Williams on some of his organizational issues, such as a last minute desire to split the job into two positions.  Williams inexplicably changed his mind and went back to looking for one candidate for the job.

As ridiculous as Williams’ position had been and as genuinely abusive of the man and the law as Williams’ behaviour had been,  Williams enjoyed strong popular support. Columnists praised Williams and condemned the offshore board,  the judge,  and the judge’s decision. 

It was a small but excellent example of the sway Williams held over local public opinion.  One ex-pat journalist summed up the phenomenon up this way:

what I mean by "he can get away with doing it" is that the premier's popularity is such that he could strangle a baby in the middle of the Avalon Mall parking lot with the assembled provincial media in attendance and there would be people that would say the baby had it coming.

In this case, though,  Stephen Harper was no baby but plenty of people were eager to accept that he had coming to him whatever Williams dished out.  And as with other Williams tirades veracity had nothing to do with it.

The War Begins

Tom Marshalls’ news release in April 2007 accused the federal government of lying to the province about Equalization . The provincial finance minister based his claim solely on Wade Locke’s presentation delivered at a public lecture earlier in the month. 

Locke clearly had not understood what the federal budget had contained.  He did not seem to realise at the time that the budget proposal included an optional calculation that excluded all non-renewable resource revenues.  Locke’s presentation referred to that option as coming from Harper’s letter to the province.  He would later correct that crucial misstatement without drawing any attention to it.

Locke also focussed on a supposed loss to the province coming from the difference between what had been promised and what had been delivered.  But here again,  Locke made fundamental mistakes. He didn’t understand how the new Equalization system would work in practice.  Locke got lost in the details, including an understanding of how the cap might operate.

In his presentation, Locke ignored premises of Equalization. Provinces only received financial assistance if they fell below an average, however it was calculated.  In two of the three scenarios,  Newfoundland and Labrador would achieve “have” status, which was a political goal for administration after administration.  Consistent with his support of the provincial Conservatives’  agenda, though, Locke portrayed this as a bad thing for Newfoundland and Labrador.

His presentation alleged the province would be short $11 billion compared to Harper’s supposedly unfulfilled promise.  Nothing could have been further from the truth.  Locke had used a single scenario to conduct his assessment and like all scenarios by economists was heavily dependent on the assumptions used.  The $11 billion was entirely fictitious, in other words.

Even though Locke did include a strategy in his presentation that would allow the province to maximise its revenue using Equalization and the offsets contained in the 1985 Atlantic Accord and the 2005 side deal, Locke played that down.  He played up the imaginary loss. And that imaginary loss is what the provincial Conservatives needed most heading into the provincial election in 2007.

There are no friends, only eventual targets

Williams first attacked Stephen Harper at the provincial party’s convention in Gander in October 2006. Sandra Buckler, Harper’s communications director, dismissed Williams as always needing to fight with a prime minister. Harper’s politicians in Newfoundland and Labrador could not ignore Williams as easily Harper could. 

Loyola Hearn was the target of Williams’ ire.  Marshall named Hearn specifically in that April news release.  The best that Hearn could do in reply was deny the provincial Conservatives’ claim. He had no information to back it up  certainly no analysis from anyone to dispute Locke.

Hearn and Williams had once been politically close.  Williams managed Hearn's’ provincial Tory leadership bid in 1989.  But now Hearn was in the way and Williams had no trouble taking the knives to any part of Hearn that came in reach.  And Hearn was willing to dig at Williams when he could.

In a year-end interview in 2007,  Hearn,  the provincial representative in the federal cabinet, boasted that he had lots of friends in the local Tory party.  “There are times I'm sure,  “Hearn told CBC, “ I know as much as what's going on in cabinet and caucus or on the eighth floor as the premier does.”

"I always do. That's why we can always be one step ahead of him," Hearn said in a year-end interview with CBC News. "I have friends throughout cabinet and caucus."

The issue came back in the fall of 2008, as the war between the federal and provincial cousins raged.  By that time, Williams was so rattled by the idea he did not have absolute control of his caucus that demanded loyalty oaths from each of them.  Only one openly refused the demand. Media efforts to get responses from the rest of caucus gained only six public comments. The lone open dissident eventually left Williams’ caucus and took a senate appointment from Stephen Harper.

Williams vowed to campaign in the 2008 federal election not just in Newfoundland and Labrador but across Canada in an effort to defeat the Harper Conservatives.  This is a crucial detail left out of assessments of what became known as the “Anybody but Conservative” campaign.

Williams confined his campaigning to Newfoundland Labrador and later claimed that is what he’d originally intended.  Nothing could have been further from the truth.   Aside from a newspaper advertisement, the only mainland manifestation of the ABC campaign was a lone billboard on the Gardiner Expressway that Williams’ Conservatives sublet from the provincial government’s tourism campaign for a short period.

Own Goal

Since 1949,  Newfoundland and Labrador voters have traditionally returned a majority of Liberals in every federal election.  The exception – in 1968 at the height of Trudeamania – was a protest against the provincial Liberals led by Joe Smallwood.   The most likely result in any federal election until 2008 was for the two seats touching St. John’s to return Conservatives with the remainder going Liberal.  The seat once called Bonavista-Trinity Conception had returned a Tory – Morrissey Johnson – during the Mulroney years and another seat, along the south coast had gone to Conservatives in 1997, again in a protest over provincial politics.  The Conservative who won the seat that year switched parties solely in order to stay in office but once Williams came to power in 2003,  Bill Matthews sided whit his old friend Danny Williams.  Matthews was, as he always had been, a dyed-in-the-wool Tory  who donned Liberal colours purely for the convenience.

So when Danny Williams declared his Anything But Conservative campaign in 2008, he was hardly promising to do much more than local voters had always done in Newfoundland and Labrador.  A majority had already rejected Stephen Harper’s Conservatives in 2004 and again in 2006, in marked contrast to Williams himself.  For them,  2008 was just another chance to do it again.

Where Williams and his crowd made a difference – the only place Williams made a difference – was among Conservative voters.  They suppressed Conservative votes in the areas that typically voted Liberal.  In Avalon,  they made it easier for Liberal Scott Andrews to defeat Williams’ old enemy, Fabian Manning. 

The provincial Conservative ABC campaign in 2008 laid the foundation the NDP gains in the 2011 provincial general election. In St. John’s East,  Williams’ old law partner took the riding for the New Democrats.  The Tory incumbent – Norm Doyle – found the pressure from the provincial party too much to bear and quit politics.  Harper eventually appointed him to the senate.

In St. John’s South-Mount Pearl,  incumbent Loyola Hearn also caved into the pressure from Williams’ relentless attacks and quit politics.  Provincial Conservatives campaigned alongside Liberal Siobhan Coady, who won the seat for the Liberals.  But in that riding,  the Conservative voters migrated en masse to the New Democrats. He came close to winning in 2008 and in 2011, Cleary picked up the momentum and defeated Coady.

The Legacy

Williams officially abandoned the ABC campaign and the popular version of events is that Williams succeeded in his campaign. Nothing could be further from the truth, on both counts.

Stephen Harper won a plurality of seats in 2008 despite Danny Williams’ pledge to see him defeated.  Voters in Newfoundland and Labrador returned members of parliament from two opposition parties to the House of Commons.  Williams and his provincial Conservatives swayed the results in two of three seats.  In the process, Williams laid the foundation for his party’s own demise after 2011.  And Harper and the federal Conservatives never changed the Equalization system.

Williams has never been one to let a personal slight go so easily.  Evidently Williams has continued to bear a deep-rooted personal animosity for people like Stephen Harper as he has held one for Ralph Goodale.  You may recall that Williams blamed Goodale personally for Williams’ failure in 2004/05.  Through the fall of 2004,  Goodale sat opposite Williams at the negotiating table.  The more Williams screamed,  the tighter became the terms of the agreement Williams eventually accepted.

In the same way,  Harper and his office ignored Williams’ personal insults and went about their business.  Try as he might, Williams’ screed could find no purchase. harper and the federal Conservatives had learned their lesson both by watching Williams deal with Paul Martin and then, first hand, by dealing with him on the offshore board appointment.

Williams’  animosity  - not to mention a pathological need for public attention – led Williams to attack Harper personally during the current election.  The interviews with CBC and CTV and an op-ed piece in the Toronto Star were full of Williams’ personal brand of acid commentary.  The official reply from Conservatives, as in 2006, was dismissive.  Williams, they said, is always made at someone or other.

Williams’ toxic legacy carried on in other ways.  He retained an unnatural level of control over the party after Williams officially quit the leadership.  Williams hand-picked his successor,  Kathy Dunderdale.  And when she left,  Williams had a hand in engineering Frank Coleman as a replacement for her.

In the meantime, Dunderdale maintained Williams’ style of dealing with the federal government.  The ostensibly autonomist administration she led tried to blame the federal government for a search and rescue tragedy that was entirely within her own administration’s responsibility. 

Dunderdale’s eventual successor – Paul Davis – carried on the legacy.  The provincial Conservatives made a deal with their federal counterparts for financial assistance to help the fishing industry adapt to the new European trade deal.  In a classic Williams-style effort,  Davis’ administration tried to change the terms of the deal.  When the federal government balked at the effort,  Davis and his colleagues falsely accused the federal government of breaking their promise. 

The episode bore Danny Williams’ fingerprints circa 2004, right down to the effort to blame one minister personally for the failure and Davis’ insistence that only the two leaders personally could solve the problem.  Harper met Davis but, not surprisingly, the federal government did not change its position.  Davis responded, as Williams did before, by insulting the prime minister personally.  The popular story,  as in Williams’ time repeated the false provincial claims despite having evidence of the real story in front of them.

The same petty, personal animosity the Williams Conservatives maintained for Harper applied equally to other Conservatives with federal influence.  Each has, in their turn, suffered some attack or other from Williams and his cronies.  It is hard to build a strong relationship, let alone sustain one, when you actively throw acid in people’s faces  every day.  Williams’ progeny learned his lesson very well, even if it was a very bad lesson.

For all that, though, the federal Conservatives met at least two of their commitments from the 2006 begging letter Williams sent to Harper.  They delivered the 100% exclusion of non-renewable resources from the Equalization formula even if the provincial Conservatives didn’t ask for it.   They also delivered the federal loan guarantee they’d committed to provide for the Lower Churchill.  No small irony that Danny Williams’ legacy is being built thanks to Stephen Harper.