Monday, November 9, 2009

Orwellian News Downsized

I tried to kill off Winston last spring, but it proved harder than I thought. I hope that the second time works. Geoff Meeker has prompted a discussion that (while at once depressing and interesting) gives me a good opportunity to downsize Orwellian News and lay off its entire staff.

This blog was born in frustration with the Telegram, so it's only fitting that it dies in frustration with the Telegram. I have already had my say about the relationship between newspapers and blogs, so there's nothing to be gained by making that argument again. And reading professional journalists pour gas on flame wars, and then haughtily slag bloggers when they object, is just too much to stomach when you're writing for free. As I wrote today in an email to another blogger, I have said most of the things I wanted to say, so it's time for Winston to take a walk in the snow (or a long walk on a short wharf, depending on your metaphorical inclination). I see that Peter Jackson has already pounced on Geoff's blog; he wasn't funny last summer, and he's still not funny, but that's what passes for wit in the newsroom, I suppose.

The point I made on Geoff Meeker's blog is the same one I'd like to end on: there is a reason why the blogs critical of the Williams regime are so much better than the pro-government commentary.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Of Horses and Newspapers

From today's front-page news:

'He still hopes to make the Lower Churchill hydroelectric project a reality before leaving office. "I'm definitely going to hang around to see if I can get it done," said the premier. But Williams said he's not going to stick around forever "to beat a dead horse" if a deal cannot be sealed, nor will he sign a bad deal for the sake of getting one done while in office.'

Look at the front page of today's Telegram (you may need to re-focus your eyes to take in all of the photo), and tell me that's it not all about him. Try and stomach the tired references to his business life and his accomplishments and, if you can, read and reflect on the last line of the article. Makes you wonder just who is beating a dead horse.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Deal or No Deal

As the second-wave of commentary washes in, the debate seems to be revolving around whether the byelection is a big deal, no-big deal, or a split-the-difference deal. Regardless of how we categorize it, today's power deal eclipses the byelection anyways.

I think that we can all agree that this one will indeed be a very Big Deal. The question is whether it's a bad deal or a good deal. I leave it to the experts to parse the economics but, as for the politics, it's strangely good news for Danny Williams in the short-term. Williams' efforts to stoke the fires of nationalist rage seem (at least so far) to be less effective than past angry-dad moments, but today's Globe story shows that at least one national newspaper still thinks it's all about him. The impact of this unfolding story will be felt in different ways -- from interprovincial relations to internal Tory politics -- but one thing is for certain: Williams now has an excellent excuse (to be charitable, let's even call it a reason) for the lack of progress on the Lower Churchill.

I would never pretend to know enough about the intricacies of such mega-projects to make an economic prediction, but I know a thing or two about politics. And if the Lower Churchill is now a dead deal (to be charitable, let's call it on life-support), then all political bets are off. As I said earlier, I think Williams plans to stay on until a deal is signed on Churchill Falls, but if that's no longer possible, then he may take a walk in the snow earlier than the pundits have predicted. (Keep in mind that Trudeau's resignation took Ottawa completely by surprise). I have no reason to doubt Williams when he says that being Premier is an awfully tough racket, and it certainly does not look like he's enjoying it at all these days. And I seriously doubt whether the Tory caucus is a happy-happy, joy-joy sort of group this Fall, given the anger issues we've witnessed.

With the prospect of two more byelections, a House that will have to be opened sometime, and an Opposition that has sniffed a wee bit of blood, the political calculus has evolved. It may be a subtle change, but subtle changes often lead to important consequences. There seems to be a popular assumption -- a wrong assumption -- that for NL to be witnessing a big deal, it must look, smell, and quack like a BIG DEAL. But politics is never so simple and rarely so obvious.

Let's connect the dots between Tuesday's byeelection (little) deal and today's power (big) deal. On the one hand, you have a Tory leader who threw everything and the kitchen sink into a byelection and lost, thereby making the stakes far higher than they normally would have been. On the other hand, you have a Premier who threw everything and the kitchen sink into a hydroelectric megaproject that looks increasingly like it will never happen. Throw in a steady ministerial attrition rate, a skin that's famously thin, and the usual assortment of crises in the fishery, health care, and forestry. Add the smaller brush-fires, such as the unresolved problems with MUN and the NLMA. Factor in the legacy of ABC and the still-dismal relationship with Ottawa. Calculate how many oil deals are left to be made. Toss in the province's public spending and demographics. Consider that the Liberals will be a more difficult opponent in the next provincial election.

If you take a hard look at the actual political landscape rather than the polls, it does not look pretty for the Tories. When I argued that we've entered Late Williamsism, I was careful to say, quite emphatically, that this does not mean that the end of Tory rule was in sight. But just because a party remains in power does not mean that its rule remains the same. Williams may have many more days ahead of him as Premier, but his best ones are behind him. He may be able to pull a rabbit out of the hydro hat, but taking on Hydro-Quebec is nothing like brow-beating Paul Martin.

In the end, we need to make a distinction between what's possible and what's probable. It's possible that Williams will sign the mother of all deals, but it's probable that he won't. That probability matters more, in the end, than a dozen brace of CRA polls.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Lessons Learned

Nottawa and Geoff Meeker have the best analysis thus far, but this CBC story is also inadvertently revealing, because it demonstrates four lessons:

1) Call it what you will -- personality cult, Late Williamsism, the Williams brand, Dannystan, whatever -- but the mainstream media are deeply complicit in its production and perpetuation. The symbiotic relationship between Williams and the media is so deep that I doubt whether the media even questions whether it is appropriate to have a post-mortem story on the byelection dominated (in title, photo, and sound bites -- the trinity of journalism) by The Premier.

2) As is so often the case, we're witnessing the alteration between the War-Danny and Zen-Danny. Whereas War-Danny was out in full force right up to voting day, today Zen-Danny is again at peace with the piece. It is, of course, no surprise that he is saying that this is no surprise; it's perhaps even no surprise that he's saying that this is a good thing, because it is (so the CBC tells us) a useful lesson...

3) ...But it's still a surprise to read Williams saying this: "It's a good check for a party that's been in government now for six years, that [is] showing popularity all through, and [has] the support of the people of the province." It's hard to follow the logic here (perhaps because there is so little of it to be found), but Williams seems to be saying that the defeat was good because the government is so popular. Wow! We knew that popularity could be used to explain just about everything in NL, but who knew that it could also explain an electoral defeat? Thus when the Tories win, it's because they are popular, and when they lose, it's because they are popular!

4) While no one seems to be paying much attention to Yvonne Jones, she made one of the most relevant comments I've seen today. According to CBC, Liberal Leader Yvonne Jones said people should see the result as a comment on the management style of Williams. "People want a voice, and there isn't a voice inside the Williams government," she said. "Most of the backbenchers are silent. Many of the cabinet ministers are allowing critical cuts to happen in their districts without ever speaking out against it." My hypothesis is that the question of democratic governance was far more important than the pundits and politicos realized. There is a persistent misconception in Town that style and substance can somehow be separated, that political rhetoric and economic reality are discrete phenomena that bear little relation to each other. Thus commentators overlook Williams' violent rhetoric because of the price of oil. Thus it is acceptable for the Premier to say that someone should be shot because he is spending lots of public money and is polling high. Thus the temptation is to accept the Faustian bargain of the endless war against the endless enemies of the people because it's a small price to pay for have-status and, as Professor Marland put it so superlatively, Williams is incredibly, phenomenally popular. I think that the byelection shows that the bargain may not be as good as it seemed.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Can we use the M-word now?

Some early observations:

1) Those who predicted that this would be a three-way race were wrong. Without vote-splitting, opposition to the Tories was concentrated in the Liberal vote.

2) Look for the Tory spin-doctors to start early and relentlessly, trotting out the talking point that this was always a Liberal district, so the loss is no biggie.

3) Rev. Arthur Elliott was right when he said "I think in terms of participatory democracy, it puts the shine back on," though for different reasons than he thought.

4) However much the Danny Kool-Aid Brigade will try to deny it, the byelection will give the Liberals vital momentum.

5) The only question is how much momentum it will create and whether it will have longer ramifications. It's too early yet to predict any sort of turning point, but it's no longer premature to speak about momentum.

6) The result shows the limitations of vote-buying, intimidation, and cabinet carpet-bombing. It shows that when people feel disrespected, their vote cannot be bought back. Commentators and politicos have tended to assume that economics always trumps politics: throw enough money at a problem, and it will go away. The assumption is that if people are upset, they are only upset about economic issues. The assumption is that issues of democratic governance rank at best a distant runner-up to the hard issues of roads, jobs, and health care. My hypothesis is that this byelection demonstrates that this assumption is wrong.

7) Yvonne Jones deserves credit. I was, like Nottawa, worried about the most recent news cycle, but she obviously knew how to manage the retail politics in the district.

8) Professors Marland and Dunn were quite a ways off the mark.

9) P&P wasn't much closer, either.

10) The pressure is now on for Williams to call the next byelection.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Paradoxes of Branding

I was going to post this as a comment on P&P's piece on the byelection, but I thought I'd post it on my own blog instead:

Here is one thing that everyone can agree on: this is no ordinary government. To Williams' supporters, he is super-excellent; to his detractors, he is super-terrible. But everyone can agree that he's super-something.

And with that comes super-expectations, which Williams himself has stoked furiously from day one. Since the day he took office, he has raised expectations and worked tirelessly to brand himself and the province as (to quote) the centre of the universe. Everything about this regime has always been super-sized, including its penchant for recklessness.

Thus the Williams brand depends on maintaining an image of invulnerability, which is why the Tories are so desperate to hold on to the seat. They know more than anyone how much their brand relies on the image of omnipotence.

Whereas a normal government could shrug off a minor loss in a byelection as part of the normal cycle of politics, the Williams government cannot afford to be mortal, because to do so would endanger the brand.

This helps to explain the strange fragility of the government, which over-reacts to any and all criticism with a disproportionate fury and panic. Even while they ride high in the polls, they act as if they are constantly under threat. They have a near-monopoly on power, yet they seem to be stressed out all the time. Why?

Well, because maintaining the brand of invulnerability takes an awful lot of time, energy, and luck. And sooner or later, lucky streaks end. If the Liberals win (which is still a big if), they may be able to start generating some momentum and perhaps get off life-support.

No one is suggesting that the Williams bubble will all of a sudden burst, even if they lose next week. But the bubble might develop a hole and start seeping support.

For a normal-government, that's the normal price to pay for governing. For a super-government, that's a looming catastrophe.

The interesting irony is that they are doing this to themselves. If there is a real story underneath all the rhetoric and posturing, it's the fact that we're witnessing how self-destructive this regime can be.

Tautology Alert Update:

Thanks to Nottawa for publicizing this fascinating little gem from the CP. It seems that MUN's political science professors have never met a tautology that they didn't like. But what's with the "key," as in "there is no key alternative"? Who said that the alternative had to be key, or does Jones need to have the key to the Chamber of Incredibly-Phenomenal Secrets before the Liberals can become an alternative? Or, since the Telegram is reporting that Williams has declared war on Hydro-Quebec, does "key" refer the suitcase with the launch codes?

Friday, October 16, 2009

Politics of Popularity

It's another sign of the times that the Opposition feels that its most effective tool (perhaps its only effective tool) against the Williams regime is poll numbers. In the current political culture, any form of low polling is seen as kryptonite.

This past week we witnessed a political scientist trotting out the tautology that Williams faces no threat because he is popular, and he is popular because he faces no threat. In other words, Williams is popular because he is powerful and powerful because he is popular. As I've before, it's funny 'cause it's true. It is therefore unsurprising that when the Liberals finally manage to get some positive media coverage, they place all their political eggs in the popularity basket. To invoke a different metaphor, polls have become the water in which our political fish swim.

Of course, there are numerous problems with this culture of poll et impera. There are not only the issues of poll goosing and media manipulation, but also the question of popularity versus actual support. Williams' popularity may be a mile wide, but how deep is it outside the Tubble, i.e., the Townie Bubble? (And, to take the Teletubbies analogy a bit further, both rely on an inane optimism replete with creepy sun-king).

I'm sure that the Tories' internal polling shows that their support is alarmingly shallow in some areas off the Avalon, and I suspect that they are worried about the byelection. The problem for Williams is not only that he must win but that he must win big-time. For Williams, mere victory is never enough; it must be über-victory, a crushing demonstration of total supremacy.

Even a relatively close victory could deflate the popularity bubble, if only a bit, and Williams knows that his power rests on the image of pop-omnipotence. He must be seen as not just popular, but heroically popular. Thus it was important for Dunn to insist that Williams occupies a popularity summit unknown to mere mortal premiers like Clyde Wells.

Sustaining this popularity feedback-loop requires as much time and energy as actual governing, which is why we've seen such an explosion of PR advisers, media handlers, communication hacks, and call-in teletubbies. And whatever you want to say about the Williams government, it has been remarkably candid about its belief that it can govern by polling fiat.

For Williams, the beauty of popularity politics is that it's self-reinforcing. People tell pollsters that they support Williams in part (perhaps in large part, in some areas outside the Tubble) because there is no viable alternative. So he is popular because the Liberals are not. And vice versa. Getting out of this Teletubbie loop is easier said than done, but trotting out poll numbers won't do the trick. As they demonstrated during the showdown with the nurses' union, the Williams government knows when to make a tactical retreat, which has just been announced. Jerome Kennedy has become for the Tories what Roger Grimes was for the Liberals, and he will do what needs to be done (Kennedy better watch out that he might get what he wishes for). And to take the analogy further, we should point out that it took a party civil war and a bitter leadership convention before the Liberals began their final decline -- and even then Grimes had two years in power.

In a post on Nottawa, I speculated about who, if anyone, would play the role of Leo Barry in the Williams regime. I was referring to the question of whether anyone would dare cross the floor. Because the way things are going, it will take a floor-crossing or two before things begin to change. While we have entered the period of Late Williamsism, we need to keep in mind that this period could last as long as the Liberals remain in disarray. As I said before, in NL governing parties tend to rot from within before they fall, but they still have to be pushed.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009


Crackberrygate is destined to generate some media traction, and the online comments at CBC make for some amusing and informative reading.

But crackberrygate also sheds valuable light on Oram's curiously short tenure as Minister of Health. It indicates that he may have been telling the whole truth and nothing but the truth, when he said:

A) He preferred paperless verbal briefings over written documents.

B) He was under a lot of stress.

C) Government spending was unsustainable.

If nothing else, this bolsters his claim that he was a stressed-out, email-dependent minister who knew literally first-hand that government spending was out of control. Imagine how you would feel if you were glued so closely to a crackberry. The CBC story focuses on the money rather than the time, but stop for a minute and think about the effects of spending hours upon hours upon hours shackled to email/phone.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Iggy Popped

I've received a couple of emails this morning asking about my missing post on Jeffrey Simpson. I had written a piece earlier this morning, but then I deleted it after reading the final version posted online.

I was going to point out that Simpson's patronizing column (I guess patronizing is redundant here) is part of a larger problem whereby policy gets conflated with politics. Simpson proposes a rather sensible policy -- raising the GST by two points to deal with the federal deficit -- but he is willfully deaf to the timing and the politics.

I was going to point out some of the errors in Simpson's argument, but I'm getting sickened by the feeding frenzy that we're witnessing. In less than a month, the media's feast on Ignatieff has helped to propel the Tories to near-majority status in the polls.

Today's Globe offers readers another generous serving of roasted Ignatieff: a lead story on his gender problem, plus a Wente parody, poll numbers, two other Liberal-negative columns, and a gratuitous media review. It's getting too rich a diet, even for me. As I said last month, I don't like Ignatieff, but I plan to vote for him.

Most of these pundits profess a desire for a change in political culture, but after watching the relentless feeding frenzy for several weeks, it seems to me that they are actually enjoying what amounts to a political homicide. (Whether the homicide is suicide, manslaughter, or murder is best left to forensic historians).

Which brings me back to Simpson and his advocacy of tax increases. Simpson loves to rant about the need for prudence and planning, and he never ceases to chide politicians for their recklessness.

But here's a couple of questions for the oracle of Ottawa. Is it reckless for pundits to participate so gleefully in the destruction of Ignatieff? And is it reckless for a political columnist to propose a policy (tax hikes), during a recession, which would be political suicide? (Bonus question: by the way, what's the plan for when the destruction of Ignatieff is completed?) . Taking Ignatieff down a notch is one thing; taking him out is quite another.

Simpson has the luxury of dealing with politics as it should be; Ignatieff has the burden of dealing with politics as it is.

Should have googled it first update:

As I should have known, I'm far from the first person to pun Iggy Popped. But the fact that Rick Mercer ranted on Ignatieff shows just how easy a target he is. I stopped watching Mercer a couple of years ago, so I didn't see this until I googled. The funniest google result was this.

An Observation and a Prediction

Observation: Rob Antle's story in today's Telegram illustrates two trends in NL politics. First, over the past year or so, physicians have been getting increasingly frustrated with the Williams government on a number of issues that go far beyond the Cameron Inquiry. They have become increasingly media savvy, and they constitute one of the few independent political forces that can effectively challenge Danny Williams.

Second, over the past year or so, Lorraine Michael has consistently outperformed the Liberals. She has got out in front of key opposition issues and used the media far more effectively than Yvonne Jones. Rob Antle relies on a letter provided by the NDP, but the fact that he quotes only Michael is not unusual. In many CBC and Telegram stories over the past year, Michael has either monopolized the media coverage or marginalized the Liberals. Political insiders will know why this is the case, but it's a clear trend.

Prediction: Antle's story will prompt a TASS communiqué within 48 hours. With the pressure of a byelection, it might even prompt a scrum. But it won't prompt another rhetorical shooting. Threatening to shoot civil servants is one thing, but Williams won't dare to threaten a surgeon publicly -- so it will be interesting to see who gets blamed.

Predictable Update:

Just in case you don't buy my observation about how Michael is running media laps around the Liberals, here is the latest example.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Signs of the Times

The imminent arrival of Moammar Gadhafi in St. John's is a suitable augur of the arrival of a new phase of NL political history that I would call "Late Williamsism."

I am not suggesting that the end of the Williams regime is in sight. Far from it. In fact, it could outlive Williams himself and continue under a new party leader in 2011, depending on when the Liberals finally get themselves organized. Regardless of what happens in the internal politics of the Tory and Liberal parties, I think it's safe to say that Williams will serve the rest of his term as premier.

Neologisms are fun, of course, but they are also necessary as a way to understand significant change. Like Late Smallwoodism (1968-72) or Late Peckfordism (1987-1989), Late Williamsism (2009-2011) will be marked by an accelerated descent into paranoia, bombast, loathing, and recrimination. As the Williams regime enters a new phase of senescence, power will become even more tightly centralized, as the 8th Floor squeezes out the last remaining cabinet ministers with either independent minds or an independent political base. I am not suggesting that the departure of Trevor Taylor will start a flood, but there will be a steady trickle of MHA's who either stray from the party line or announce that they will not be running again for personal reasons. Hardcore supporters like Joan Burke will stay to the end, but the Tories will not attract new blood. As the governing party ossifies, it will depend ever more on the personal rule of its leader, as Toryism and Williamsism blend to become one political brand.

I can already hear the protest: What about the polls? Surely the oracle of Halifax cannot be wrong! No, they are not wrong: the polls reveal what the polls reveal, just as chicken bones served as portents for centuries. High poll numbers are high polls numbers. While the popular conflation of poll numbers and actual political support remains as strong as ever, the past year tells a different story. It's not that Williams has made a single major blunder -- alas, there will be no deus ex machina for the Liberals -- but rather that he has made a series of minor blunders that have become systemic.

None of the scandals (the mishandling of the presidential search at MUN, the mishandling of Health Care, the mishandling of the shrimp fishery, the mishandling of Abitibi expropriation, et cetera) is enough to dent the goosed-up polls but, when taken together, they have been enough to prompt genuine protest movements. This movement is not (and likely will never be, unless the Liberals get their act together) unified, and the protests are not coordinated. But these protests -- whether it's fishermen occupying a government office in St. John's, hundreds of people protesting health cuts in Lewisporte, or an anonymous group publishing anti-expropriation ads in Grand Falls-Windsor -- are part of a broader pattern. The Williams government is increasingly out of touch with rural Newfoundland, as I've said several times, but it is not out of control.

Thus Late Williamsism is characterized by an increasing bifurcation: on the one hand, high polls numbers, weak opposition, and the Townie fortress; on the other hand, political atrophy, isolation, and growing popular discontent beyond the overpass. As this process intensifies, fear will replace enthusiasm within the Tory ranks, as those without parachutes will hunker down for the long haul. I am not suggesting that the icons of Williamsism will fail, or that official Optimistic Correctness will falter, but it will become a political mask that Tories will wear to hide their fear, loathing, and paranoia.

Don't believe me? Then try to explain this bizarre news story by CBC. There is a new health care facility coming to St. John's. It will be big and important. According to the head of Eastern Health, they are "well along in the planning." But Vickie Kaminski cannot divulge any information. She cannot say what the facility will be. Though it will be important, she cannot say what it is. She cannot say how much it will cost. Kaminski seems to be channeling Ross Wiseman, who said last winter (miffily, according to CBC) "When we have the facts we will make decisions not speculation on what might or might not happen."

It is precisely this combination of secretiveness and bafflegarb that marks the transition to Late Williamsism. It's a transition marked by increasingly strange Nixonian preemtive denials that there are no conspiracies, and "nothing underhanded or unaccountable" about the way the provincial government is run. This descent into strangeness may seem normal to people who live in it, like fish in water, but historians will look back and see it as similar to the lunacy that gave us Sprung Greenhouse.

As opponents begin to organize, it's no accident that they have resorted to anonymity. As Geoff Meeker has reported, an anonymous group of calling itself Exploits Energy has been running an advertising campaign that has attracted considerable attention. Perhaps this will prompt commentators to think twice before they condemn the use of pseudonyms. While David Newell condemned anonymous commentators "who do not have the nerve to reveal their identity," he defended his newspaper's decision to publish ads from this anonymous group, saying "since it is a business contract, we have to respect their privacy and our business relationship."

That would be well and good, but Newell didn't leave this issue there. As Meeker reports: "I do know one thing,” Newell continued. “These people have nothing to gain personally over an equity stake in the power, in the establishment of a venture capital investment fund or anything else involving that revenue. Not directly, anyways. They are sincerely interested in the long-term survival and prosperity of this Valley. These are people who have families and jobs and businesses. If the community prospers, so will they. If the region survives, they hope their kids will grow up here. It’s as simple as that for them.”

I leave it to you to decide whether Mr. Newell has contradicted himself, but I think it's safe to say that the issue of anonymity is now more complicated than it was six months ago. It's a sign of the times.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

This just in (updated)

Health and Community Services
September 23, 2009

Cabinet to Make Sacrifices to Help Health Care

The Department of Health and Community Services announced today that Cabinet will make sacrifices to assist the sustainability of the province's health care system. Honourable Paul Oram, Minister of Health and Community Services, said that the entire Cabinet has unanimously agreed to a 25% pay cut and an immediate freeze on all unnecessary travel and expenses.

“Our government works to balance quality with long-term sustainability. And, sometimes this means that politicians need to make sacrifices to find this balance,” said Minister Oram. “Our government faces a difficult decision to make regarding the types of services we can offer in the long-term, how much we can continue to pay politicians, and identifying how we can improve the quality in our programs and services across the province.”

The Provincial Government spends more per capita on Cabinet Ministers than any other province. “While our investments are significant and important to the quality and accessibility of care, this rate of spending is not sustainable over the long term,” said Minister Oram. “Our government is working to ensure rural healthcare services are sustainable so we never go back to the previous ways of unsustainability. It is important for us to make the right decisions today to ensure a strong future for our healthcare system."

"During a week when the Provincial Government announced subsidies for Rolls-Royce, Wally Andersen pleaded guilty and VOCM is reporting a grassroots movement against MHA's salaries, it is important to take stock of our priorities. We have to face the reality that our bloated political system of pay, perks, and pork is simply unsustainable," Minister Oram said.

- 30 -

2009 09 23 9:30 a.m.

This just in again (you cannot make this stuff up version):

The provincial government is defending the indefensible salary raise given to MHA's (never mind the perks and expense accounts) by claiming that it's justified because others got a raise, too. For the full version of this me-tooism, see the hot-off-the-presses TASS communiqué.

The learned Minister not only throws in the ignoratio elenchi of pension costs as a go forward justfication of the salary piece, but he offers this little gem that veers into tu quoque: "To fully index the Public Service Pension Plan and the Teachers’ Pension Plan on a go forward basis [could it be indexed on a go backward basis?] would increase the plan obligations by almost $2 billion. Even an ad hoc increase of four per cent would increase plan liabilities by $160 million. Many, many seniors in this province do not have any pensions at all and the Provincial Government has a responsibility to all senior citizens."

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Memo to Ignatieff

To: Michael Ignatieff

From: Agitated Voter

Re: How to Win

I don't like you. There, I've said it. You are charismatically challenged; you have an inauthentic demeanour; and I'll never forget your stance on the Iraq war. I suspect that millions of other Canadians feel pretty much the same way about you.

But I plan to vote for you. I want your party to win. I want you to beat Harper. However much I don't like you, I despise Stephen Harper and his Tories.

I worry that you're going to be a Canadian John Kerry. I worry that you're going to allow yourself to be swift-boated because of some misguided effort to occupy the high road. In your recent profile published in the New Yorker, Adam Gopnik claims that you're transformed. But if anything, Gopnik's profile shows how little you've changed. You say that you now realize that politics is about theatre (as if journalism and academia somehow are not!), but it's only party theatre: the other part is warfare.

Your summer slumber hurt you. Like millions of other Canadians, I don't care why you allowed yourself to miss an opportunity to attack Harper, but you did. I'm sure there is some complicated PowerPoint presentation somewhere that says that doing nothing for months was the right move. At this point, it doesn't matter.

At this point, you need to attack. Attack, and then attack again. You are not Barack Obama, no matter what your advisors and Annex scuppie friends tell you. You are never going to generate mass popular appeal. The public is never going to love you. On a charisma scale between Dion and Trudeau, you're somewhere in the middle. You need to recognize this for what it is: a tactical advantage over Stephen Harper, who Canadians really do not like. But they know Harper, and the jerk you know can sometimes become the jerk you live with.

So you need to know your limitations. Don't make your campaign autobiographical. Don't make the rhetoric too ambitious. You need to emphasize change. Change is what Canadians desperately want. Not change we can believe in, but change we can tolerate. Most voters want moderate change. They will vote for centrist change. Your slogan should be "Change you can vote for." You are lucky in one instance: Harper has given you a target rich environment. You will be on firm ground when you hammer away at his unpopular positions on wedge issues such as regional development, CBC and the arts, university granting agencies, science funding, or the environment. In harder areas such as the economy, you need to tread very carefully.

You will be on shaky ground if you try to attack Harper's position on Afghanistan or the deficit. In the case of the former, the Liberals are too complicit in the war to have much credibility, and you in particular will have no credibility because of your mistake over Iraq. Just say bland, centrist things, sound worried, and let the news stories do the work for you. Your strategists and professional pollsters may tell you otherwise, but real voters will tell you that this election will not be won or lost on foreign policy. Foreign policy will be, at most, a significant election issue; more likely, it will fade to minor status once the campaign starts.

In the case of the deficit, the public is not as stupid as you might think: they realize that some deficit financing was necessary as the recession took hold and they will tolerate it until the US recovers; the fact that Canada is doing better than most other countries means that Harper's economic record is not his achilles heel. This is one area where you can rely on what's left of the Liberal brand: you need to keep repeating the mantra that the Liberals will be a centrist, smart, moderate government that will manage the economy prudently.

You can bank on one thing: the Tory attack machine will stop at nothing. They will throw just about anything at you in the hope that something will stick. Because of this, you can afford to go negative, too. In fact, if you don't attack Harper, you will be seen as the type of weak, latte-drinking elitist that the Tories want to paint you as. When someone like Tim Powers attacks you for being an arrogant elitist, your staff needs point out the hilarious irony of Powers calling someone else arrogant or elitist.

Powers was not the first to play the arrogance card and he certainly won't be the last. It's something you will have to learn how to deal with, and sooner or later, your campaign will have to devise an effective counter-punch. The most depressing line in Gopnik's profile came after he summarized the smallness of the English Canadian elite. (Such a summary is necessary for Americans; Canadians know full well how small their cultural establishment really is. Only in Canada could John Ralston Saul, a prince of the establishment, safely rail against elitists). After explaining the peculiar form of Canadian elitism, Gopnik observes, "This smallness means that highbrow reputation and political plausibility can be twinned: a brilliant man [sic] from a well-known family who gives a good lecture and gets the notice of a few big people can become a party leader more of less overnight." Gopnik is more right than he realizes: it can indeed be surprisingly easy to become a party leader. Becoming Prime Minister is an entirely different story. It's been more than a generation since Trudeau left politics: over the past quarter century, the only two successful Prime Ministers were Brian Mulroney and Jean Chrétien, neither of whom fits Gopnik's template.

Don't make your campaign all about you. I know that you like autobiography. It's clear that you love talking about yourself, your family, your past. But you need to realize that it's not all about you. In fact, if your campaign makes it all about you, the Liberals will lose. One of the many weaknesses of Stephen Harper is that he has a weak cabinet by design. He doesn't want strong ministers. You need to demonstrate that you are a team player who will have a strong cabinet filled with people who do not believe in creationism. (You would do well to spend more time speaking with Chrétien and less time chatting up writers for American magazines).

Keep in mind that this election will be about retail politics. It will be about agitated voters frustrated with the status quo; voters who tell pollsters that they support Harper, even though they don't like him; voters who don't trust Layton and the NDP; voters who worry about the Bloc. These voters liked Harper's Australian-style, retail-politics tax cuts; but they are no Barry Goldwaters. They represent the big, fat, mushy middle, filled with people like myself who want to be persuaded that there is a genuine alternative to Harper.

You need to focus on local operations, volunteer organization, constituency offices, and getting the Liberal vote out. Many people forget that Obama's success was due far more to his campaign discipline, organizational prowess, and local networking than his masterful rhetoric or debating skills. Many people also forget that while Obama himself eschewed nasty attacks on Hilary Clinton and then John McCain, his supporters and surrogates never hesitated to exploit their opponents' weaknesses.

You need to stop talking like a cosmopolitan. Talking about Isaiah Berlin in interviews is fine as it goes, but often the reader gets the scary impression that you genuinely believe that this election will be an existential struggle between variants of liberalism, between the forces of individualism and the imperatives of collective rights. If you pander too much to Quebec nationalism, you will lose, no matter how intellectually complicated your rationalization may be.

Please keep in mind the fate of the ill-fated Decembrist coalition. Please keep in mind that more than anything else, your smart avoidance of the Decembrists was what got you the leadership in the first place. Do not forget how the Tories pounced on the so-called pact with the separatists. Do not think that you can somehow semantically skate around separatism. "So-called" doesn't matter in elections.

Stop talking about the Balkan civil war as if it was your war. You need to stop using it as an intellectual touchstone. If you tell Canadian voters that your position on nationalism was forged by Blood and Belonging, you will lose. If you tell Canadian voters that, as a result of the Yugoslavian tragedy, "I got out of my system a certain kind of cosmopolitism that's highly individualistic," you will lose. Talking like that is precisely what cosmopolitans do. Talking about your self-reinvention, your personal transformations, or how you've decided to try on a new brand of cosmopolitanism will not get you elected.

Keep in mind that you are not, and will never be, Trudeau. Keep in mind that he had more charisma in his left arm than you have in your entire body. Keep in mind that he was smart enough to know how to talk smart. Keep in mind that whatever else, he projected authenticity -- you knew who he was, even if you didn't like him -- and, because of that, he gained respect. Keep in mind that Trudeaumania was never as deep or as wide as Liberals make it out to be. Keep in mind past Liberal minority governments, past defeats, past missteps. Keep in mind that unlike Trudeau, you face an opponent who is as smart as you. Keep in mind that unlike Trudeau, you face a Tory attack machine that makes Tim Powers look positively refined.

I want to vote for you. I really do. And millions of other Canadians want to, too. They want the noise and uncertainty of minority government to go away. They want to push the spectacle of last year out of their collective memory, and they want to pretend that the whole prorogation soap opera never happened. You can help them do that. You may have supported the Iraq war, but you never became a fully committed Decembrist. Your relatively clean slate is one of your best friends in the next election. The other is Stephen Harper.

Keep in mind that however low you stoop, he will stoop lower. This does not mean that you should not jump into the mosh pit of political mud-slinging. Far from it. It means that because of their nastiness, you can afford to attack. It means that you are in the fortunate position of facing a nasty politician who has tried repeatedly, and failed repeatedly, to get Canadians to give him a majority. You may not have a lot of personal charisma, but he has far less.

You need to pass the elevator test, i.e., the leader with whom the voters, if given the choice, would prefer to ride the elevator. Voters like to talk more about how politicians are jerks than about the legacy of Isaiah Berlin. And while they tell pollsters that they don't like negative campaigns, the truth is that politicians use attack ads because they work. Remember what Machiavelli said about fear and love.

Trust me on this. Just because voters place such a high premium on perceptions of strength and authenticity does not mean that they are stupid (nor does it mean that all ordinary Canadians drink double-doubles, by the way), but it does mean that they can spot a phony or a bully a mile away. You're facing a bully in the next election; for the sake of the electorate, please leave the role of the phony to Jack Layton.

Good luck. And stop giving interviews to the New Yorker.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Thesis, Antithesis, Synthesis

Thesis: "The industry was facing a crisis and the MOU has been critical in resolving that."

Antithesis: "FFAW president Earle McCurdy says time is running out."

Synthesis: "As we head into the Labour Day weekend Premier Danny Williams is full of optimism about future economic prospects for the province."

I wonder what would happen if Here & Now used Kang as a point of comparison, as Global News did in 2007. Just wondering.

Thursday, September 3, 2009


Kidding, nothing more than kidding,
Backtracking furiously, still trying to pin the feds,
Special sessions and recrimination,
Normal day in this angry nation

Kidding, wo-o-o-o, kidding,
Wo-o-o-o, kid you again, like the good old days

Kidding, nothing more than kidding,
Kidding now the polling is done
Kidding about burying hatchets
Pretending there's no political racket

Kidding, wo-o-o-o, kidding,
Wo-o-o-o, kidding

Wo-o-o-o, fool me once, shame on you,
Fool me can't get fooled again....

(Cue music, repeat & fade)

You may not laugh at the joke as reported in the Telegram, which reads like a piece from Angy Dad; but I'm sure the assembled audience laughed as heartily as they did at his health crack.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Aural Correctness

From the people who brought you patriotic correctness, optimistic correctness, and emotional correctness, comes a bold step into a brave new world of governance: aural correctness. While it might not suit the tastes of the Telegram's editorial board, the new directive will be welcomed by aurally retentive politicians everywhere.

Missing Liberals Update:
Why did the CBC quote only Lorraine Michael in their story? What about the Official Opposition?

Monday, August 17, 2009

Piece Negotiations

Danny Williams and his followers love the word piece. They love it so much that they have created entirely new meanings for the word.

In Danspeak, "piece" seems to denote a project or initiative, though it's often hard to discern any rational meaning. Take, for example, this prattle to the Globe and Mail, in response to a question about the mythical fixed link, "Yeah, but it's not just a simple link but a major transportation piece that enables people to do a circuitous route. [In Quebec] they are extremely interested; we talked to them about it recently." Williams was obviously on a roll by this point in the interview, because he offered this follow-up comment: "Being a have-province is a huge piece for us psychologically."

Pieces may be physical, psychological, or eschatological, but one thing is for certain: they are always political. And in this polling season, the tea leaves show some interesting patterns. Williams may have been too busy to attend interprovicial meetings, but he had plenty of time to give interviews with Gordon Pitts and Dave Bartlett (the latter was excitedly touted as an exclusive). Neither Pitts nor Bartlett asked Williams why he is so popular, but they sounded eerily similar to Lisa Simpson, when she observed that Monty Burns' campaign had the momentum of a runaway freight train.

Pitts offered the best inadvertent humour, however. Not only does his interview quote Williams as claiming that, pace Labradore, half the province's population lives in or near St. John's, but it offers the amusing spectre of him touting the world-class facilities of the same university that he has helped to turn into a collective acting class.

But what do the two interviews reveal, aside from journalistic obsequiousness? The ABC virus has mutated into yet another form. The last time I checked, the Williams government had announced a new shaming initiative, whereby they would use their unique powers of moral suasion to pressure the federal government to support their fishery policies.

However, as should be expected for a government on the move, both the shaming and kiss-the-backsides initiatives have been replaced by a new optimistic fatalism. According to this doctrine, the Lower Churchill will get finished, sooner or later; the federal government will subsidize the project, sooner or later; and Williams will retire as premier, sooner or later.

If Williams sounded like Luke Skywalker last winter, now he's channeling Yoda. If he wanted to rip Harper's head off in February, now he's refraining from even uttering the name of his nemesis. If he was enraged at the Shaft, now he's at peace with the piece. Now the best trash talk he can offer is this exercise in tepidity: "I don't think, at times, the federal government gives it [Churchill Falls] the attention it deserves." In this moment of political Zen, it's not a question of how or why; it's merely a question of when. There is no try, only do!

This is the sound of one mouth flapping. While Williams has declared a temporary truce in trash talking the Tories, Gros Morne remains fair game. It's no accident that he invoked a gambling metaphor: "Williams said the Gros Morne route would probably be the cheaper and shorter route, but he said it could be taken off the table if Ottawa would commit to help fund the project." He may be no longer threatening to haul down the Canadian flag, but he's not above environmental blackmail.

Which brings us back to piece. Williams' use of the word may be inexact, but it appears to be closest to [11], i.e., "a nice piece of acting." In this phase of the piece negotiations, the question is whether Williams' threat against Gros Morne is serious. The plan to run hydro towers across a UNESO World Heritage Site may sound crazy, but that's the point. In much the same way as Nixon wanted the North Vietnamese to think he was crazy enough to use nuclear weapons, Williams wants the federal government to think that he's nutty enough to ruin a national park. In much the same way as Nixon became obsessed with "winning" the Vietnam War, Williams is obsessed with the great Hydro war.

As I said last spring, the road to Newfoundland nationalism runs straight through Churchill Falls. To quote its namesake, "Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning." Nixon began his experiment in madman theory in 1969, six years before the Vietnam War finally ended.

Friday, July 31, 2009

If a report falls in July, does anybody hear?

If an economic report falls in July, does anybody hear?

It's no surprise that the latest economic forecast from the Conference Board of Canada received ample attention in the Globe and Mail and the Telegram.

It's also no surprise that it's being ignored by the Williams government and VOCM.

But it is surprising that the Opposition is so quiet. While the Telegram's report that "Finance Minister Jerome Kennedy could not be reached for comment," is de rigueur these days, surely the Liberals could have got a word in somewhere? Couldn't the Opposition be reached for comment?

Stop the Presses Update!
It looks like the state of the economy cannot compete with an enraged cat.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Just how bad is VOCM?

Here's a question for today: just how bad is VOCM?

Here are the headlines listed as of 8:45 a.m.:
Tragic End to Search for Chopper
Recreational Fishery Starts Saturday

Weekend Emergency Service Restored at Hospital
Memorial Beefs Up Emergency Plan
Central Health Recruits New Doctors
Premier Confident Central Newfoundland Will Overcome Challenges
Thursday's Sports Scores
Possible Supermarket Closure Prompts Rally
Dump Sites Closing
Guide Aimed at Special Marine Areas
South Coast Aquaculture Industry Astounding: Premier
Pot Bust on Northern Peninsula
Tall Ship Visiting Capital City
Viking Village Named Hidden Travel Gem
Local Sports

Janeway Case Room Nurses on Mandatory Stand-by
Drowning Victim Identified
Elderly Man Crashes Motorcycle
RCMP Hot on the Busted

Labrador Towns Baffled
Submerged woman recovering
Labrador West Saddened

B and B Operators Offer Free Accomodations to Quebec Couple
Contraband Cigarettes Seized
Eastern Health Moving to Implement Report

Avondale Store Celebrating Milestone
Gander Reassured About Search and Rescue Unit
Man Could Lose Driving Privileges
Email Scam Warning Issued
Turnings Boss Against Pot Legalization
Government Acts on Smelly Situation
Province Committed to Southern Labrador Airstrip: Taylor
Fuel Prices Unchanged
Former CBS Mayor Dies
NLer Helps Canada to Softball Victory O'Brien Shines
Avondale Store Celebrating Milestone 120 and counting
RCMP Applaud Quebec Couple for Rescuing Woman

Mainland Accident Claims Life of Woman From Province
Province Not Moving to Needs-Based Home Care: Oram
Young Person Hospitalized with H1N1
MHA Supporting Capelin Fishermen
Fire Department Issues Reminder to Businesses
Public Meetings Set on MHAs Salaries and Compensation
Mayor Pleased With Work on TLH
Paradise Beats Harbour Grace in Online Vote
Car Submerged in Pond Submerged vehicle stolen.
Man Injured in Workplace Accident
Fire Damages Home in Bulls Cove
Deer Lake Teen in Trouble
Police Release Surveillance

The stories stretch back to the 21st. Let's leave aside, for a minute, the high proportion of feel-good Williams government stories. Let's even leave aside the fact that today's pseudo-story on Williams' speech is nothing but an abstract of the speech, complete with an audio clip guessed it: an excerpt from the speech.

No, what's truly telling is the absence. What's left unsaid says everything about VOCM News. In a week with startling and disturbing revelations about the scope and depth of political corruption in NL, there is not a single story on the trial of Jim Walsh.

Only the Telegram is giving the Walsh trial the attention it deserves. I have been critical of the paper and some of its columnists in the past, but I have to give credit where credit is due: their reporting and commentary have been informative and incisive. Their editorial today gives reassurance that critical thought is alive and well in at least one corner of the fourth estate. It was also one of the better written commentaries, with a punch packed at the end:
"And if you're willing to simply accept reassurances that it's all better now, well, then you'll get the government you deserve."

That's one of the best lines I've read in a while. Here's the link:

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

ABC's of Justice

While the national media focuses on H1N1, the ABC virus continues to spread unabated.

The latest casualty is the Provincial Department of Justice. The ABC virus used to be confined to the long-standing agitation for a federal penitentiary in NL. As Labradore noted at the time, the Williams government was putting new rhetorical wine into an old political bottle:

But the ABC virus has since mutated into a new form that afflicts provincial as well as federal jurisdictions. In response to mounting public complaints about the poor condition of Her Majesty's Penitentiary in St. John's, the Williams government is apparently lobbying Ottawa to pay part of the cost of building a new provincial facility.

The VOCM story on 18 July neatly blurs the line between HM Penitentiary (a facility run by the province) and the long-standing campaign for a new federal penitentiary: "The province has been asking the federal government to help build a new prison in the province [a provincial penitentiary?], but the feds have yet to jump on board."

It's unclear whether this is part of the new federal-shaming policy that Fisheries Minister Hedderson announced last week, but it's certainly a sharp departure from Premier Williams' public declaration in the House of Assembly less than three months ago:

Or perhaps, like all agitprop, it's a hybrid of the two. Whatever the case, today's coverage in the Telegram shows that even inmates are well aware of the politics of prisons. According to the Telegram, a former inmate said, "federal politicians who refuse to fund a new [provincial] prison should be fired." (It appears that only the Premier is allowed to say publicly that officials should be shot).

When asked by the Telegram, Federal Public Safety Minister Peter Van Loan released a statement saying, "As this is a provincial facility, the prison and its future are entirely the responsibility of the province."

Meanwhile, the Provincial Department of Justice refused to comment on the matter. I wonder why.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Where's Waldo?

My eldest son really enjoys the Where's Waldo books, so I've been reading them with him fairly often this past year. This morning I realized that Waldo-locating skills are useful when searching for other people, too. Take, for example, yesterday's press release, MOU, and news conference:

The press release, news conference, and media stories contain photos of, quotations from, or references to, the following individuals:
Tom Hedderson
Earle McCurdy
Gail Shea
Derek Butler
Stephen Harper

Who is missing?

[Hint: it's the same guy who appears on virtually every news release associated with NALCO]

Once you've finished the Where's Waldo game, you might want to ponder three questions:
1) According to the government's press release, "The industry was facing a crisis and the MOU has been critical in resolving that." So the crisis is now suddenly over?

2) Hedderson is quoted in the Telegram as saying, "We have a very good chance of making sure that we shame them into action." Does this mean that the provincial government has reversed its policy with respect to federal-provincial releations, replacing the official line of "we couldn't care less" with the new "making sure that we shame them"?

3) What's the difference between the "investments" touted in the government's press release and the "subsidies" that Dunderdale rejected just two weeks ago?

Here are the links:
The press release:
The Telegram story:
VOCM story:
"We couldn't care less" policy:

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Protest Postmortem

The fishery protest that started with a media bang ended with a political whimper.

As I wrote last week, the return of the Premier meant one of two things: he would either wage rhetorical war against the protestors or cut a deal and throw money at the problem. As with the threatened nurses' strike, the provincial government blinked:

As I said when the nurses' strike was averted, I'm glad that the provincial government had the sense to cut a deal. However, while the government's response to the deal is a lot quieter than the aborted nurses strike (few media stores and no government press release thus far), a protest postmortem reveals some interesting similarities between the two incidents. These similarities are part of a broader pattern of governance. Let's call them the Williams Government Top Ten:

1) Procrastinate while the problem festers.
2) Attack when the problem generates significant media attention.
3) Blame everyone else involved and deny any responsibility.
4) Find a way to say it's all Ottawa's fault.
5) Issue a press release saying that the government has already done everything it can do.
6) Do nothing substantive until the Premier gets directly involved.
7) Cut a deal at the last minute.
8) Assume that the deal solves everything.
9) Return to ignoring the larger structural issues that caused the problem.
10) Return to your idée fixe: NALCO deal-making.

Press Release Update:
It will be interesting to see how much follow-up there is, but here's the press release:

Friday, July 10, 2009

How not to be an Opposition critic

How not to be an Opposition critic, from the CBC:

Liberal critic Kelvin Parsons said the Gros Morne hydro corridor is a bad first option, saying he thought it was another case of the premier "shooting from the lip."

However, Parsons said he could possibly support the plan under certain circumstances.

"Right now we have a UNESCO site there. There should be no transmission line through there unless it is absolutely necessary to go through there. And we don't know that at this point," he said.

Why on earth would Parsons open the door, even a crack, to the possibility of supporting such an utterly stupid idea? It's not a "bad first option," it's bad. Period.

What could the Liberals possibly gain by giving Williams an inch so he can take a mile? It doesn't take a genius to figure out how political expediency can be skewed to appear as absolute necessity, if the power line lunacy continues. What we don't know at this point is how reckless the Williams government will be, not whether the power lines will be absolutely necessary.

If there is any issue on which the Opposition should take an unequivocal stand, it's this one. The Liberals never seem to miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity. (Yes, I know it's an Abba Eban quote).

Now is the time for them to put as much distance as possible between themselves and Danny Williams. I'd trade the "shooting from the lip" quip any day for an unqualified rejection of Williams' (or is it NALCO's?) Gros Morne power line propaganda.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Wiseman Dumped

As you've no doubt heard already, Williams has finally dumped Wiseman from Health:

Timing is everything in politics, and in this case it was most curious. The spin and counter-spin will no doubt be full of all sorts of theories on why Williams decided to oust Wiseman today, rather than when he moved Burke out of Education.

But I'm sticking with the principle of Occam's Razor: the simplest explanation is likely the most accurate. And the simplest explanation is this: Williams did it because he wanted to. That's all. He waited until he decided it would be best for him, not for Health, not for the cabinet, not for the media, not for the public, not even for Wiseman himself, I suspect.

Perhaps a clue is that it was done in between Townie holidays (the 12th is soon upon us again), and in between scandals at Health: so it would generate as little publicity as possible. The last thing Williams would want is to give the impression that he was caving into public pressure. No, it was wham, bam, shuffle. No public leaks (at least none that I know of), just a terse media advisory giving the bare necessities:

The sharpest commentary I've seen thus far was on the CBC site, where someone said, "Someone must have suggested to Danny that Wiseman should stay on as health minister." At least Wiseman will no longer have to feel guilty when he spends his time speaking to Chambers of Commerce.

For those of you who just have to have a theory, here's one to chew over: Williams dumped Wiseman as a way to provide a temporary distraction from the crisis in the fishery and the fallout from his reckless Gros Morne power line talk. The pattern seems to be that he finally ousts a minister after the scandal in her/his Department has temporarily eased and when another Department is getting media heat. Thus Burke was dumped well after the initial presidential crisis erupted but at a time that took some of the pressure off Wiseman, who was being boiled in every news cycle. This fed the media something else to talk about and gave the impression that Williams was on top of things. Perhaps I was right when I said that last week's fishery protest had penetrated Williams' teflon. Williams returned from Europe, gave an absolute disaster of a media scrum (feeding not 1 but 3 stories in the Telegram), and so he was left scrambling to find a way to do damage control.

And for those of you who dare to think that this has something to do with the looming release of new information about cancer testing, you would be right: Wiseman said that the two events are connected, because today's shuffle bumped the release down the media advisory ladder. According to CBC, "The shuffle comes the same day as new numbers of patients affected by mistakes with breast cancer tests were expected to be released. Wiseman said the shuffle pre-empted the release, and the update will come early next week."

One could argue that the causal relationship should be the other way around, i.e., releasing new information would prompt a change of minister. One could also argue that the release of the cancer test imformation should take priority, given the earlier, "they should be shot," fiasco.

But nothing could be further from the truth. According to the CBC, "the premier said the timing of the shuffle is not related to the update." Quod erat demonstrandum.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

All Roads Lead to Ottawa

Hee's Baacck. In the wake of his media scrum and this morning's news cycle, a singular truth is more evident than ever: For the Williams government, everything revolves around Ottawa.

This may seem to be a curious claim to make about a notoriously nationalistic regime, but if you stop and think about it, Williams says practically nothing without reference to Ottawa. I'm not sure that even Clyde Wells was as focused on federal politics during the Meech Lake saga as Danny Williams has been since he took power. From the spin about "going it alone" in foreign policy or resource development, to hauling down the Canadian flag and the never-ending ABC putsch, Williams seems obsessed with the province's relationship with Ottawa. One way or another, Tory politics always comes back to the federal government.

Not convinced? Well, let's take today's news cycle. There are three substantive stories in today's Telegram:

1) Williams' response to last week's fishery protest: "Premier Danny Williams says the fishing industry ought to train its sights on the federal government - not the province - to solve its long-term problems. He said the province has already stepped up to the plate, but Ottawa has not."

2) Williams' statement about the proposed NALCO transmission lines through Gros Morne: "The premier suggested that Ottawa could come up with the extra cash to defray the additional cost of rerouting the towers."

3) Williams' report on his foreign policy junket to Europe. "Because of our unique position, where we've said that we're not totally on side with Canada [sic] in this whole process, I thought it was important that we made a direct link," Williams reported. The story is not available online, but you can view the first section via the Telly's "smart edition" function:

According to Williams' scorecard, today's game of federal-provincial politics is 3-0. First, Williams denied that the provincial government bears any responsibility for the crisis in the shrimp fishery, which is now Ottawa's problem to solve. Evidently, Williams decided that last week's fishery policy -- promulgated in the press release that stated, "the industry itself has failed to take the action needed to address these issues" -- was due for a change, so he switched the blame to Ottawa.

Second, Williams threatened to build a power transmission line in a UNESCO world heritage site unless Ottawa covers the cost to build the towers elsewhere. And finally, he claimed that his relationship with Ottawa is so bad that he has to travel to Europe personally to oversee the province's own foreign policy, though Geoff Meeker has uncovered evidence to the contrary:

If you thought this government was all about going it alone, think again. It's all about Ottawa.

Back to the Future Update

...And it's not as if this is a new phenomenon, either:

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Penetrating the Teflon

If journalism is the first draft of history, we may be seeing some history being made this week. With the fishery protest entering its fourth day, my sense is that we are in the midst of some sort of change.

It's too early to tell whether this change will be temporary or long-lasting, but it appears that Danny Williams' political teflon has been breached. This story seems to have broken through the teflon barrier, and it has the potential traction to do political damage.

The Telegram's editorial this morning gutted the story with a straightforward question: Why are thousands of fishermen receiving far less government attention than 130 paper mill workers?

It then split the story open by observing that Williams is in Europe on a foreign policy junket and Hedderson is in Texas of all places, leaving Dunderdale to tell the protestors to leave the building. (By the way, wasn't it curious that Williams chose to be out of the province on Memorial Day and Canada Day, and thereby miss the plaque unveiling ceremony?).

It's unclear whether ignoring the fishermen will hurt Williams' poll numbers when CRA does its thing again. If the venomous comments on the CBC and Telly sites are any indication, beating up on fishermen plays well with biased, uninformed, and bigoted people. It's interesting to note that no one ever calls civil servants pampered, overpaid, or lazy; but fishermen get called worse every time a story is posted online.

The larger question here is not about the management of the fishery per se but rather the management of government itself. Earlier in the week, VOCM was sticking fairly closely to the Tory party line, but today's story carries the FFAW's three most important talking points:
1) Williams has refused to meet with McCurdy.
2) Williams needs to spend the same time on the fishery as on oil deals and ABC politics.
3) Williams' government needs to be more respectful towards the fishery.

Point number 2 is similar to the point that Randy Simms was trying to make before Williams' now-infamous meltdown on VOCM, so it will be interesting to see which Danny Williams lands at St. John's airport. Will we see the return of the angry patriarch eager to smite all those who doubt his will? Or will we see Williams quickly dispatch his ministers to throw money at this problem to make it go away as quietly as possible? (One wonders whether Hedderson himself knows the answer to that question).

What we do know at this juncture is this: the fishery protest is not a discrete, stand-alone story. It has hooked into the larger story about how Premier Williams treats people who challenge him. It has become a question of not only the government's fishery policy, but also its judgement, its attitude, and its competence. It relates directly to the political issue I've raised this week: the Tories are out of touch.

For four days now, the government's response has been to attack by throwing all the blame back onto the fishing industry. As a sign of the 8th Floor's irritation, they threw an angry press release at the problem. But still the protest continues.

Here is a question for you: if Williams lost his senses over just one session of Randy Simms' call-in show, how is he going to react to four days of protest?

For the press release and analysis, see:

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

A Tale of Two Words

If NL is now a tale of two worlds, then the government's policy is a tale of two words. While the economic gulf between the St. John's bubble and rural NL grows ever larger, the political divide is summed up in two words: investment and subsidy.

With Mr. Williams off on his very important European tour, it was left to Ms. Dunderdale to break the news to the fishermen that they failed the word test. According to the provincial government, the shrimp fishery has failed to qualify as an investment and, as such, any public money poured into the industry would become a subsidy. If we ever needed a reminder of the politics of words, VOCM's story provides it. How so, you may ask? Well, try this mental exercise: read the VOCM story and substitute the word "subsidy" with "investment."

Changing just one word changes the politics. The choice of "subsidy," which is usually used as an epithet, was not accidental -- so let's stop for a moment and actually consider the meaning of this politically toxic word. Here is a sample definition:

A subsidy can mean different things, but it usually refers to some form of assistance designed for the public good. Now let's consider "investment," that most golden of political words. Here is a sample definition:

What's the biggest difference between the two words? Profit. Investments are typically associated with future private profits rather than present public good.

So let's return to Dunderdale's response to the fishery. The provincial government is willing to spend public money on a venture that may or may not return a profit in the future, but it is unwilling to spend public money on a venture that will definitely help fishing communities in the present. The subtext is this: the millions upon millions of tax dollars poured into the new economy (personified by NALCOR) are justified because they may return a profit at some point in the future; but the fishery isn't worthy because it is part of the old economy. One is an invesment; the other is a subsidy. One is the future; the other is the past.

But I'm not sure that the politics can be wrapped up in such a neat formula. In the first instance, other news outlets are offering markedly different coverage of the fishery story. Over at CBC, the headline puts Dunderdale squarely on the defensive:

I can already hear Tory supporters say "yeah, but that's the bias of the left-leaning CBC." Perhaps. But trying to write off the fishermen ignores two political realities. First, they are not going away anytime soon. These people are frustrated, organized, and angry to the point of action. Second, these people vote. In fact, they along with other voters in towns outside St. John's comprise the majority in NL. The looming crisis in the fishery may not undermine the CRAPolls in the short-term, but sooner or later, the Tories will feel the political bite. Sooner or later (and it seems to be much sooner than the Tories thought), people living in fishing communities will sense that their backs are up against the wall and they have nothing to lose by protesting against a provincial government that seems indifferent to their needs.

For a government that prides itself on being masters of their house, masters of their domain, and even masters of their destiny, the Tories' approach to the fishery betrays a surprising lack of ambition. If Williams is an action hero -- the premier who will knock heads and do whatever it takes to get things done -- then why isn't he rolling up his sleeves and attacking the problem? If he is willing to take on goliaths like prime ministers and international oil companies, why is he unwilling to take on the fishery? It is curious that a provincial government willing to use legislation to expropriate assets from a corporation is suddenly hiding behind laissez-faire rhetoric.

I suspect that if the negative press coverage carries over to another news cycle, the provincial government will, in fact, announce additional subsidies once Williams returns from Europe. In the meantime, it's up to the Liberals to keep the pressure up. The subsidy mantra is straight out of the blather binder that the jet-setting Williams left his ever loyal Deputy:

It's now up to the Liberals to develop their own talking points to counter the official subsidy slag.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Just Another Manic Monday

If you're too young to get the Bangles reference, then you shouldn't be reading blogs. Like that great Eighties band, Williams is on tour again. And like all boomer stars, he's going to show that he's very big in Europe:

One can't blame him, really. Eddy Campbell continues to bask in the longest round of goodbyes in St. John's history. The fishermen are being negative again. The NLMA is ready for negotiations. The Health ministry stumbles from one negative story to the next, with St. Lawrence being the latest hotspot. And the upcoming municipal election is already creating a racket.

Not surprisingly, then, in the audio clip on the VOCM homepage, Williams explains that he is taking a lot of issues to Europe.

VOCM Makeover Update:

Now you can access the audio directly via the funky new page in the Valley:

I counted 4 "issues" in the clip versus 1 "very very," which runs less than 20 seconds.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Question for Ms. Burke

If Ms. Burke is too busy for briefing notes, binders, and all that stuff...

Then how will the learned Minister know when the province has "the best system it possibly can in Canada, and worldwide for that matter?"

Friday, June 26, 2009

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner

If the loggers are the canary in the Tories' coal mine, then the fishery is the albatross.

The point is not that there are problems in the industry. Everyone knows that there are problems, some of which can be solved locally and some of which are beyond the government's control. The point is that fishermen are publicly criticizing the Williams government for being out of touch.

As happened with mill workers and loggers, the provincial government has been remarkably slow to respond to local grievances. Their pattern has been to procrastinate until negative media attention finally forces them to act:

The most significant part of today's CBC story is this section:
"Of a total population on the Northern Peninsula in the vicinity of 10,000 people, there's a thousand who work directly in the shrimp fishery," McCurdy said. "That's been closed down solid for [the] better part of a month, and there hasn't been a squeak," he said, referring to the Newfoundland and Labrador government's interest in the issue.

McCurdy said he wants to know why the government is not providing the fishery with the kind of assistance it has been giving to the forestry sector. He said he has been asking for a meeting with Premier Danny Williams since December, but instead has been fobbed off to Fisheries Minister Tom Hedderson.

McCurdy said half-hearted and stop-gap measures will not be enough to solve problems in the fishery, which has long been troubled by too many people chasing too few fish. "Do they think no more highly of people in the outports than that to say that make-work projects are good enough for you?" McCurdy told CBC News.

For his part, Hedderson accused both the FFAW and seafood processors of not doing enough to turn things around. "I don't believe that they've done the due diligence that they need in order to get the price that's required to get that fishery going," Hedderson said Thursday."

Politics is about managing expectations. Since he came into office, Danny Williams has been going for broke, raising expectations as high as he can, to the point that he's willing to embarrass himself on VOCM to protect his optimistic dystopia.

Yesterday the Telegram ran a reasonable editorial on the shrimp fishery, which offered a clear picture of a byzantine industry:

The economics of the fishery may be one thing, but the politics is quite another. Fishermen, like everyone else in NL, hear the loud beat of the optimism drum from the "Tubble," i.e., the Townie Bubble. They hear all about how the sun has shone and have not is no more. They read about the success of the ABC campaign and the endless government spending on the ever growing bureaucracy in the Tubble. And they draw their own conclusions and make their own political calculations. Hedderson's effort to deny responsibility and throw all of the blame back on the FFAW and the processors will be about as successful as Joan Burke's effort to deny responsibility for the debacle at MUN.

Back in the halcyon days of March, the Speech from the Throne boasted that the good ship Williams had navigated a bold and brilliant course to the tropical paradise of Have Status, where everyone was so happy and optimistic that they didn't need a federal government:

But as Coleridge understood, sailors are fickle and they will turn on their captain quickly if they think they are being misled by a mariner who carelessly shoots things.