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." http://www.vocm.com/newsarticle.asp?mn=2&id=129&latest=1

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: http://www.thefreedictionary.com/subsidy

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: http://www.thefreedictionary.com/investment

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: http://www.cbc.ca/canada/newfoundland-labrador/story/2009/06/30/dunderdale-fishery-ffaw-630.html

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: http://labradore.blogspot.com/2009/06/subsidies-are-bad-mkay.html

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: http://www.vocm.com/newsarticle.asp?mn=2&id=115&latest=1

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... http://www.thetelegram.com/index.cfm?sid=260869&sc=88

Then how will the learned Minister know when the province has "the best system it possibly can in Canada, and worldwide for that matter?" http://www.vocm.com/news-info.asp?id=37089

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: http://orwellianspin.blogspot.com/2009/06/abcs-of-fishery.html

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: http://www.thetelegram.com/index.cfm?sid=263680&sc=80

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: http://orwellianspin.blogspot.com/2009/03/danspeak-90.html

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.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Out of Touch

This morning VOCM is carrying the type of story I discussed yesterday:
Loggers' Protest May Resume Thursday
June 24, 2009

"The protest on the Northern Peninsula is over - at least for now. Forestry workers blocked part of the Northern Peninsula Highway to draw attention to their plight. Many jobs in their industry have disappeared over the last while, and they're asking government to step in and help. One of the protestors, Ralph Payne of the Loggers Association, says they haven't been able to get much of an ear from area MHA's Trevor Taylor and Wally Young. On VOCM BackTalk with Bill Rowe, Payne said they will give government a day or so, then take to the streets again tomorrow if they don't get a satisfactory answer." http://www.vocm.com/news-info.asp?id=37006

While the Premier attacks anyone who dares to doubt his messianic campaign against skepticism, many of the people in NL (certainly the majority outside of St. John's) do not share his optimistic correctness. They know that there is a global recession going on, but they're frustrated by the government's lack of understanding, empathy, or even dialogue about the stressful situation facing many people in rural communities. With everything running through the 8th floor, Tory MHA's are unable to respond to local problems as they arise.

The Liberals need to target the Tories' regional weaknesses and expose the government's reluctance to deal honestly, directly, and sincerely with the genuine concerns of people living in rural communities. They need to point out that Danny Williams has never understood rural NL. There is a growing disconnect between Williams' flashy rhetoric about being the centre of the universe and the hard reality of local communities facing difficult choices. In my view, this disconnect should be the Liberals' primary political target.

While Williams' meltdown on VOCM attracted the lion's share of the media coverage (for understandable reasons), the story about loggers who cannot get the government's attention is the real canary in the coal mine. For the Liberals, the message is clear: the Tories are out of touch.

If you look at the fall of Smallwood and Peckford, arguably the most effective argument used against them is that they had become arrogant and had lost touch with the needs and attitudes of ordinary people. Williams' oversized personality, his wealth and business connections, and his slick pizzazz may be his greatest political assets, but they're also potentially his greatest weaknesses. Since 2003 he has used populist nationalism to mask the fact that he is the epitome of the St. John's elite; but as the VOCM story and others illustrate, chinks in the armour are starting to appear with greater regularity, and the Liberals need to exploit this opportunity.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

The Road From Perdition

With a number of journalists and commentators speculating about if/when Williams will step down and what stage of Dannyism we've entered, it might be a good time for the Liberals to take stock. As I said in an earlier post, if history is any guide, real change in NL politics will come when the governing party rots from within: http://orwellianspin.blogspot.com/2009/03/long-view.html

As we weigh the different political predictions, I think we should keep three things in mind. First, Williams will not leave office with the Lower Churchill left undeveloped. As I've said many times, the road to Newfoundland nationalism runs through Labrador's hydro power, and I cannot envisage Williams stepping down without signing the Mother of All Deals. So either he'll have to be defeated in an election, or he'll step down once the hydro deal is signed.

Second, the Tories, like the Liberals, are neither a monolithic nor uniform entity. Rather, they comprise a coalition of different groups and peoples brought together for different reasons in a drive for power. For any party to govern effectively, it has to cross traditional sectarian and geographic boundaries. In the case of the Tories, they were successful because they extended their appeal beyond their traditional Townie and Catholic bases of support. They managed to do this in a number of ways (e.g., effective local recruitment in ridings, an appeal to nationalist sentiment and fed-bashing, and capitalizing on Liberal weaknesses); however, they never really succeeded in re-branding Williams, whose flashy suits and corner-boy style are as Townie as you can get.

There is an undercurrent of anger in many fishing communities and in Central Newfoundland. There is a real fear of being left behind, while the St. John's bubble continues to grow and grow and grow. The first place that the Tories will falter is in rural Newfoundland, where Williams' style has never been as popular as the polls indicated. In many parts of NL where people haven't felt the benefits of oil revenue and the government-spending boom, Williams' support is still a mile wide, but it is only an inch deep.

Third, the shift in power will begin only when the Liberals re-brand themselves as the party which cares about the little guy, the working people who feel left behind, the fishermen, and mill workers -- the people who feel screwed over and who never had a shot at a comfortable civil service job. They're not going to do this with Dean MacDonald in charge, or by returning to Tobinism. If the Liberals think they are going to be able to out-Danny Danny by annointing a slick new heir apparent, they should think again. In my humble opinion, Yvonne Jones has done a good job under difficult circumstances: she deserves to play a central role in deciding how the Liberals organize for the next election.

Above all, the Liberal Party needs to heal the fractures from 2001 and the fallout from its civil war. It needs to reintegrate the powerful tradition of rural populism that it lost when Efford was defeated, but it needs to do this without returning to Tobinism, which wore thin remarkably quickly. Tobinism was, in many respects, Dannyism without the petrodollars. It was slick and media-savy, though it was also inauthentic. One of the reasons why Danny remains relatively popular is that, whatever he is, he is seen as authentic. Many voters overlook his outbursts not because they like him but because they don't see him as inauthentic.

I've seen commentators make unfair comments about Jones' accent and her style, and I think the Liberals could turn this into a political opportunity. They need to brand themselves as the authentic voice of the majority of the population who do not spend their free time planning their next vacation to Cuba, loading up their new Camry at Costco, or calculating how much their East End back-split has soared in value since Danny took down the Canadian flag. Instead, the Liberals need to adopt what I would call the "Shearstown litmus-test." They need to rally around a leader, a style, and a platform that generate genuine enthusiasm in a traditional Liberal heartland like Shearstown. They have to start with the base of the party and work from there. If they can fill a hall with a speaker comfortable with the Shearstown brass band, that's a start.

The Liberals need to decide what they want to stand for: they need to find their own voice and forge a distinctive brand. And they cannot wait for the next election to get around to it.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Picture worth a thousand words?

I missed it the first time. Perhaps you caught it but, if not, take another look at the front-page photo from yesterday's Telegram: http://www.thetelegram.com/index.cfm?sid=261552&sc=79

Look at the background. Is that a giant NO behind the shot of Williams?

Surely this was just a coincidence?

Perhaps, but the Telegram's photographers do have a penchant for interesting angles when they shoot the Premier: http://bondpapers.blogspot.com/2009/01/halo-effect.html

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Proud, Strong, Determined

Before the Telegram issues its balanced edict and explains to the masses why they should not be bothered by Williams' VOCM melt-down, here are three questions:

1) Proud. This government is very proud of the fact that it is so very, very busy. They remind us all the time that they have no time. So if they are so super busy, why did Williams have nothing better to do than call VOCM?

2) Strong. This government prides itself on its strong, steady judgement. They remind us all the time that they are the masters of their destiny. So if they are in such total command, why did Williams lose control of his temper?

3) Determined. This government prides itself on its determined leadership. They remind us all the time that naysayers are insignificant and that Newfoundlanders are the most optimistic people in the Western world. So if they have such iron-clad determination and everyone is so optimistic, why did Randy Simms' comments put Williams into such a rage?

Monday, June 15, 2009

The Tide of Public Discourse

If there is a dominant trend at the Telegram these days (aside from the proliferation of emotive, human-interest stories on the front page), it's the reaction against criticism of the Williams regime.

Like Russell Wangersky, Peter Jackson wants to play "devil's advocate" and chide those who blow problems "out of proportion."

Jackson starts with an overstatement: "Here's a thought. Is it possible Ross Wiseman is not the most incompetent health minister since the dawn of recorded history? The idea goes against the overwhelming tide of public discourse lately."

Exaggerating the opposite position (i.e., setting up the proverbial straw man) draws on one of the most common logical fallacies.

In Jackson's case, he caricatures the debate over Wiseman's tenure by opening with two extreme assertions that misrepresent the public debate, giving the false impression that,
A) People critical of Wiseman believe that he is "the most incompetent health minister since the dawn of recorded history."
B) Belief in A is part of an "overwhelming tide of public disourse lately."

With his straw man neatly set up, Jackson chides the reader to "give the man his due," since Wiseman is not causing the problems at Health, which is not really in a state of crisis anyways but rather "still chugging along, wheels intact." "Cancer tests notwithstanding," Jackson claims, "most of the problems in health care boil down to a perpetual lack of funds."

It's hard to know where to start. First, if the extensive reporting by the CBC has demonstrated anything, it's that the problems are not all due to a lack of funds. Ineffective management -- including poor communication and inept leadership -- has led to poor morale among physicians. If anything, the media's focus on the Cameron Inquiry has obscured the larger problems beyond oncology. The recent exodus of specialists in a number of critical areas is, pace Jackson, evidence of systemic crisis in the system. Ask the NLMA, and they will tell you that it's not all about money.

Second, the only person I know who is publicly stating that Wiseman is the "the most incompetent health minister since the dawn of recorded history" is Jackson. In an earlier post, I called Wiseman the "most incompetent member of cabinet," and other blogs have made similar claims. I suspect that Wiseman is trying his best, and chances are that he's a nice enough fellow who is out of his depth; but that's not good enough for the Health portfolio. I'm not sure what hospital Jackson has been visiting lately, but anyone who has a loved one needing heart surgery can tell you just how bad things are.

Third, just where is this "overwhelming tide of public discourse"? Where is the avalanche of public criticism of the Williams government? Where are the marchers and the protesters? Where are the devastating debates in the House of Assembly? Where is the large Official Opposition waiting to take power? Where are the newspaper columnists rallying public opinion against the provincial government? Where are even the low poll numbers?

Most of the sustained criticism of Williams has been restricted to a handful of blogs and the online comments sections of the CBC. Hardly an overwhelming tide. The latest CRAPoll showed that Williams still enjoys strong popular support. The House of Assembly, which sits as infrequently as possible, is now closed.

If Jackson wants to be an apologist for Danny Williams and Ross Wiseman, so be it. But he should be honest about his agenda and not hide behind some phamtom tide of public discourse.

When journalists believe that Danny Williams, of all people, needs protection from public criticism, you know that we're living through strange days indeed. Joey Smallwood faced Ray Guy. Brian Peckford faced the Sunday Express. Danny Williams faces...well, I leave that for you to determine. For those of you who like to blame everything on the internet, check this out in today's Slate.

And for those of you who, like Jackson, believe that the problems at Eastern Health are, "the price we pay for universal health care," keep in mind that the U.S. pays far more per capita on health care than we do, yet tens of millions of Americans have no health insurance and the U.S. has a lower life expectancy rate than Canada. If money were the only probem, then the US would have the world's best health care system.

Definitely Not Ray Guy Update:

Saturday, June 13, 2009

The Trouble with "Balanced" Journalism, II

Russell Wangersky is at it again this morning, offering another excuse for Danny Williams.

After discussing his own penchant for jokes and then moving to the Raitt scandal, Wangersky raises the "public vs. private" binary and says this about Williams:

"Premier Danny Williams recently said in public that people at Eastern Health "should be shot" for putting out a press release on cancer testing errors late on a Friday afternoon, and without making anyone available to comment on the information in the news release.

Williams used a pretty common colloquial expression - but it wasn't so much the language he used, as it was where he decided to use it.

And he's worn it ever since - even though it's something plenty of other people have said, and that plenty of other people will say again."

Don't forget, it's hard to have a perfect public face." http://www.thetelegram.com/index.cfm?sid=260535&sc=86

As I said at the time, the problems with Williams' hyperbolic language is not just its offensiveness but rather the fact that he let himself off the hook: http://orwellianspin.blogspot.com/2009/04/politics-of-hyperbole.html

Far from having "worn it ever since," Williams received fairly light criticism, with the bulk of negative commentary restricted to bloggers.

I wish Wangersky would stop trying to justify Williams' bullying, but he seems determined to impose a balanced interpretation on imbalanced actions. There are, of course, always two sides to a story -- the proverbial "he said, she said" -- but that does not mean that both sides are equally correct or equally justifiable. Trying to find a balanced explanation for why Williams said health care officials should be shot only serves to justify his verbal bullying and public scapegoating of civil servants.

The problem is not, as Wangersky would have us believe, a question of where Williams made his remarks. This incident cannot be written off as an accident of geography.

It was the deadly serious way he uttered the threat: this was not meant to be funny and no one laughed.

It was the deadly serious subject -- cancer testing -- and the highly emotional environment in which he spoke publicly before the cameras.

It was the important issue of responsibility, and the effort to deny that the provincial government should shoulder any blame. As I noted at the time, Williams insisted on calling Eastern Health "them," while he freely uses "us" for other analagous agencies: http://orwellianspin.blogspot.com/2009/04/political-teflon.html

It cannot be written off as a common local colloquialism, either. The phrase "someone should be shot" is not as common as Williams' defenders like to pretend. It cannot be excused as a facet of some unique local dialect, used frequently in the East End. I spent most of my life in St. John's, and I cannot think of a single time (other than out hunting with my father), when I heard someone say that something should be shot. The phrase is no more common -- and is no more acceptable -- than on the Mainland.

It cannot be excused as a simple slip-up, something that we should overlook because no one can be expected to be perfect in public. If this was simple mix-up -- if Williams' misspoke, as it were -- then all he needed to do was say that he misspoke. A simple explanation that he misspoke in the heat of the moment would mitigate the seriousness of the incident. Politicians slip up verbally all the time and apologize all the time when they do. We don't expect them to be perfect, but we do expect them to own up to their mistakes.

When weighing the type of neat public/private formula that Wangersky lays out, we need to keep a couple of things in mind.

First, we should put ourselves in the shoes of the target and think about how we would feel if we were on the receiving end of such a verbal threat.

Second, we should think about the effects: what did the verbal shooting incident accomplish? It focused attention towards Williams and his anger and away from the actual chain of responsibility.

It was only after tenacious investigative reporting by CBC that the truth began to come out, months after Williams insisted that Eastern Health alone was entirely to blame: http://www.cbc.ca/canada/newfoundland-labrador/story/2009/06/02/eastern-health-memos-602.html

In the meantime, the problems with cancer testing continue: http://www.cbc.ca/canada/newfoundland-labrador/story/2009/06/11/missed-cancer-tests-611.html

Finally, we need to address the question of identity. Wangersky makes it seem that it's just a question of public versus private, not one of who is doing the talking. This may hold water when we're talking about private citizens, but it does not apply when we're dealing with elected officials, particularly the premier when he is speaking as leader of the provincial government.

No one expects perfection. We expect and deserve accountability.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Will the Real Premier Stand Up?

If you have a few minutes today during your coffee break or lunch, it's worth your time to watch the video feed from VOCM linked to the latest fishery story: http://www.vocm.com/news-info.asp?id=36762

At the 45 second mark, after declaring that he will provide "backstop" funding for "income support" (whatever that means), Mr. Williams says that all this is "bearing in mind that we obviously will want to work with the federal government on such a program."

Fascinating stuff, coming from someone whose recent comments on the federal government included not only a reference to kissing backsides, but also this unqualified declaration: "If they choose not to fund us at this particular point in time we couldn’t care less, quite frankly." http://orwellianspin.blogspot.com/2009/05/kiss-backsides.html

There are two possible explanations for the cognitive dissonnance between the public statements made in the House of Assembly on 30 April and in the media scrum recorded by VOCM on 11 June:

1) Two different people made the statements.

2) The statements were indeed made by the same person, but he changed his mind at some point between 30 April and 11 June.

If it's number 2, then it will be interesting to see how the federal government responds to Mr. Williams' new policy direction. Did Mr. Williams consult with the Prime Minister or the federal Minister of Fisheries before announcing this new income support plan?

If, as seems likely, Mr. Williams has not chatted with Mr. Harper about this, did the Premier's Office at least send an email heads-up to DFO, letting them know that they are now being expected to support a vague and open-ended commitment to provide income support for certain groups of fishermen?

Does this mean that Mr. Hedderson will be able to get a meeting with the federal Minister of Fisheries? http://orwellianspin.blogspot.com/2009/04/foreign-policy-report.html

It's still possible that explanation number 1 is correct, but the fisheries edict fits a larger pattern whereby the provincial government procrastinates and then, after the media attention has reached a critical level, the premier jumps in suddenly and announces that cash will be thrown at the problem.

This was the government's pattern in dealing with the medical crisis, when it singled out oncologists for a special raise, and we all know how well that has worked. It will be interesting to see whether the fishery income support initiative works any better, but I suspect that by the time the provincial government gets around to actually implementing this policy, it will try to pin the mess on the federal government.

Given the shifts in provincial policy since April, I may have to update Triva Pursuit:

Thursday, June 11, 2009

ABC's of the Fishery

Further evidence on how the ABC folly continues to affect NL, via VOCM of all places:

"McCurdy says Newfoundland and Labrador is a low priority for the feds because of the successful ABC campaign. He says the province has a responsibility in federally regulated industries to play a role in helping those affected. Provincial Fisheries Minister Tom Hedderson says the market issues are not unique to the lobster fishery- all fishing sectors are seeing the crunch. He says at first blush, the monies announced don't seem to go far enough. The Minister applauded the efforts of the protestors in bringing attention to the plight of those in outport communities across the province." http://www.vocm.com/news-info.asp?id=36709

Three questions for Mr. Hedderson:
1) Why did the fishermen have to resort to a protest in order to get the government's attention?

2) Does he agree with McCurdy's view on the fallout from the ABC campaign?

3) How will Hedderson work with DFO, given that he's working for someone whose attitude toward federal-provincial relations was summed up in this remark in the House of Assembly: "If they choose not to fund us at this particular point in time we couldn’t care less, quite frankly." http://orwellianspin.blogspot.com/2009/05/kiss-backsides.html

If you agree with Wangersky's claim on Tuesday about the effectiveness of Williams' combative personal approach, watch the video feed linked to the VOCM story.

At the 1:00 minute mark, one of the fishermen brings up the issue of the ABC campaign. Listen as he clearly and concisely describes how Williams has to take responsibility for the fallout from ABC and its impact on fishermen.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

The Issue of Anonymity

Here is the link to a guest commentary I wrote for Geoff Meeker's blog:

I have never met Geoff in person, but I respect the way he has tried to foster public debate. One issue that I forgot to raise in my commentary is my response to journalists' complaints about name-calling and personal slurs. When we're weighing this problem, it's important to keep in mind that many other professionals also have to cope with unfair criticism and nasty personal attacks from anonymous sources on the internet. As any doctor, teacher, or professor can attest, the proliferation of popular web sites such as ratemyteacher, ratemymd, and ratemyprofessor has affected their personal and professional lives. Some of these forums even encourage the public to comment on the sexual attractiveness of the targetted professionals. So journalists should remember that they are not unique and at least they have the opportunity to hit back in print.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

The Trouble with "Balanced" Journalism

Russell Wangersky's column in today's Telegram offers an excellent example of the problem I discussed yesterday. Wangersky offers a thoughtful analysis of Williams' condescending attitude towards Lorraine Michael, but near the end of the column he pulls back to offer this balance: "It's a nasty trait, and one that is not an attractive side of a type-A provincial politician who has otherwise managed to use his combative personal approach to serve this province quite well." http://www.thetelegram.com/index.cfm?sid=259007&sc=86

Wangersky didn't follow up on this assertion, so we're left with no evidentiary basis on which to judge his claim that Williams' combative personal approach has served NL well. But Williams' ability to bully Paul Martin in 2005 is the exception that proves the rule. Perhaps there is a rich body of evidence out there to demonstrate that Williams' combination of hyperbole, rage, bullying, name-calling, threatening, and recklessness has worked where a less combative approach would have failed. But journalists, like historians, labour under the burden of positive proof. If Wangersky wants to assert that Williams' "combative personal approach" (a sanitized term for bullying) is largely effective, then he should provide evidence for this claim. If there is a way to justify a style of leadership that invokes death threats and charges of treason, I'd like to see it. If there is a way to provide a balanced justification of why Williams can say "someone should be shot over there," it speaks volumes about the sorry state of NL's political culture.

On the other hand, there is ample evidence that Williams' politics of rage and revenge has not served the province well. From the so-called fiscal "shaft" to the failed foreign policy initiative, Williams' combativeness has hurt NL. With health care and the fishery stumbling from one crisis to the next, it's hard to imagine how personal combativeness has helped to do anything except distract the public from policy failures. Not only that, but in a number of cases, Williams' combative approach has actually created new problems, such as the ongoing leadership crisis at MUN, the unresolved issues with the NLMA, the refusal to investigate electoral irregularities, the failure to pass whistleblower legislation, et cetera.

In trying to provide a balanced approach to Williams' bullying, Wangersky undermines the very point that he is trying to make: Williams' condescending attitude toward Michael is unnacceptable. By claiming that this combative personal approach has otherwise served the province well, Wangersky seems to be suggesting that the problem here is not with Williams' behaviour but with his target. He seems to be saying that while it's unacceptable to bully Lorraine Michael, it's acceptable (indeed, it serves the province well) for Williams to wage personal war against others.

Most of the time, I admire Wangersky's journalism. While I find his meandering metaphorical style sometimes irritating, I respect his judgement. And I know it's easy for bloggers to criticize journalists who have to be careful not to burn political bridges. But there is something wrong when professional journalists feel compelled to balance criticism of Williams by justifying his pattern of bullying. Williams' treatment of Michael was not an isolated incident but rather part of a long, well-documented pattern of abuse that includes public death threats.

We need to recognize that we're facing a public choice. Either Williams' histrionics matters or it doesn't. Either it's a serious public issue or it can be dismissed as mere political theatre. I believe that it's a serious issue, and I think many journalists do, too. But I also believe that we cannot cherry-pick incidents and overlook everything else. There are times in political history -- and we're living through such a time right now -- when trying to balance criticism with defence actually perpetuates and enables the very problems that journalists seek to remedy. By claiming that Williams' histrionics has otherwise served the province well, Wangersky is feeding the pernicious myth that bullying is acceptable because it delivers results.

In assessing Williams' leadership, yesterday's editorial in the Telegram asked, "Wasn't it Lady MacBeth who doth protest too much?" http://www.thetelegram.com/index.cfm?sid=258567&sc=80

A more apt Shakespeare reference would have been to "Hamlet," when Marcellus says "Something is rotten in the state of Denmark."

Monday, June 8, 2009

Collective Bipolar Disorder

I got back late last night from a trip to the US, which is always interesting. It helped to put the don't-leave-home love campaign into context. As the late Erich Honecker knew all too well, it's never a good idea to allow too much exposure to other polities.

Reading and talking about politics outside NL forces any sentient being to confront two basic, undeniable facts: Danny Williams is odd; and the fact that he continues to be popular is even odder.

I am the last person to put much faith in the CRAPolls, but it would be silly to deny the fact that most people at least passively support the Williams regime: http://www.cra.ca/en/home/Newsroom/SupportforConservativesinNLisUnchangedandRemainsHi.aspx

On the eve of the NS election, it's worth reflecting on some fundamental differences between NS and NL politics. There is plenty of venality and pettiness in NS politics, but there is also a marked absence of grandiosity. The parties are doing what most parties do in most western democracies: they are using a variety of rhetorical tools to convince voters that they are best equipped to lead the province. To do this, they are doing everything from slinging mud, to pandering to voters' fears, and to offering some constructive policies: in other words, it's a mixture of high- and low-brow politics. Whatever it may be, it's about choices and options in the real world of political calculus: no one is seriously promising (and no one is seriously expecting) that the election of one party will somehow magically cure NS of its problems and transport Nova Scotians to a promised land. No one is saying that NS is the centre of the universe, that Nova Scotians are the most optimistic people in the western world, or that health bureaucrats should be shot. The rhetoric may be petty, silly, or naive; but it is most clearly not megalomaniacal.

Which brings me back to grandiosity. As I commented in an earlier post, there are some interesting similarities between Williams and Nicolas Sarkozy, who shares Williams' mania and vanity: http://orwellianspin.blogspot.com/2009/04/french-connection.html

But there is an important difference between the political experiences of Williams and Sarkozy. Unlike Williams, Sarkozy has faced severe, sustained public criticism from not only rival parties, but also the press, the universities, and the cultural elites. This criticism has focused as much on Sarkozy's style of government as his actual policies, and one critic has described France under Mr Sarkozy as an “egocracy." http://www.economist.com/world/europe/displaystory.cfm?story_id=13745814

Not surprisingly, the Economist defends Sarkozy's policies, but it also points out that the strong reaction against Sarkozy is undermined by the fact that voters lack a clear alternative. In other words, it's not so much a question of Sarkozy's strength as the opposition parties' weaknesses -- a point of obvious comparison with NL.

Despite the similaries, there is a clear difference between anti-Sarkozysm and anti-Dannyism. In NL, the only steady source of relentless criticism of Williams has come from political blogs. Columnists, reporters, editorialists, and even some call-in hosts have offered sharp criticism on specific topics; but they have not provided a sustained rejection of Dannyism. NL has no equivalent to Ray Guy's critique of late Smallwoodism.

Equally important, whereas anti-Dannyism has failed to sway the public, anti-Sarkozysm has made itself felt where it counts: poll numbers. According to the Economist, "Two years into Mr Sarkozy’s term in office, intense and obsessive dislike of the president—anti-sarkozysme—is fast becoming the defining feature of French opposition politics. This goes beyond the president’s poor popularity rating, which fell another four points to 32% in May, according to TNS Sofres. In the election for the European Parliament, due on June 7th, the subject is not so much the future of Europe as Mr Sarkozy himself." It is important to keep in mind that Sarkozy's low poll numbers come at a time when the opposition parties are in disarray, so the excuse in NL that it's all the Liberals' fault doesn't wash.

Two factors help to explain why Sarkozy has much lower poll numbers than Williams. First, the public critique of Williams remains episodic and often fragmentary. The province's cultural establishment (which in NL usually means the self-appointed Arts Community, along with MUN) has failed to offer a congent public critique of Dannyism. While writers never hesitate to lay the boots to dead politicians, they are remarkably reluctant to criticize living ones. And while professors howled over the failed presidential search (can we please get over the martyrdom of Saint Eddy?), their political engagement has been remarkably limited. Fueled by a smug mixture of radical chic and cynicism, the intellectual elite cannot be bothered to get its hands dirty, leaving the blogosphere to semi-professional consultants, current and former Liberals, and anonymous outsiders like me. For every editorial that the Telegram gets right (and there are plenty of them) and for every columnist and reporter who nails a story (and, if anything, political reporting has been getting better over the past year), there are also many silences when Williams gets a pass. The problem with balanced reporting is that it assumes a balanced polity. When a government descends into a form of political mania, a balanced approach no longer works.

Second, we have to face the fact that Dannyism is relatively popular. However much I would like the public to recoil from the spectacle, the thuggery, the vulgarity, and the manipulation, it doesn't. It would be comforting to believe a conspiracy theory that explains how Williams has managed to pull the wool over everyone's eyes. It would be comforting to believe that the vast majority of Newfoundlanders reject the propaganda and the bombast. It would be comforting to believe that Newfoundlanders see through the miasma of unrealistic expectations, witch-hunts, and political recklessness.

But such comfort would be a lie. The truth is at once much more disturbing and more banal. As I noted in an earlier post, it is important to keep in mind Occam's Razor, which is the principle that the simplest, most straightforward explanation of a particular phenomenon is usually the right explanation: http://orwellianspin.blogspot.com/2009/03/paradoxes-and-polemics.html

If Williams has consistently high polls numbers, then the simplest explanation is that he is relatively popular. Most Newfoundlanders are, at the very least, comfortable with the style and content of his leadership. While much of this support constitutes little more than tacit consent, it is still, as John Locke argued, a form of consent.

How do we explain this fact? I think we need to return again to grandiosity, which is more than political style. Grandiosity is a symptom of mania in bipolar disorder. The fact that it has become such an accepted part of NL's political culture is evidence of a collective bipolar disorder in which the lines between fantasy and reality, between what's inappropriate and what's appropriate, have become severely blurred.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Emotional Correctness

First, we had Patriotic Correctness: http://meekermedia.blogspot.com/2007/02/david-cochranes-speech-on-patriotic.html

Then, we had Optimistic Correctness: http://orwellianspin.blogspot.com/2009/03/optimistic-correctness.html

Now, we have Emotional Correctness: http://www.vocm.com/news-info.asp?id=36548

In this strategic partnership, the Ministry of Love wants you to show how much you love your fatherland by refusing to spend your money anywhere else:
"This is Tourism Awareness Week. Tourism Minister Clyde Jackman and representatives of Hospitality Newfoundland and Labrador were on hand for the official launch last night at the Atlantica Restaurant in Portugal Cove-St. Philip's. Jackman says the theme is "For the Love of Newfoundland and Labrador". Jackman says the theme encourages residents to stay inside the province if they plan to go on vacation this summer. Jackman says they want people to enjoy whatever it is that makes them love Newfoundland and Labrador."

For the truly committed Optimistic Patriots, the Ministry has partnered with local businesses to direct, for those who "just want to expound on your great love for Newfoundland & Labrador, phone us at 709-570-5291 and tell us about it for the chance to win some really great prizes." http://www.ozfm.com/contests/fortheloveofNL/fortheloveofNL.html

The penalties for vacationing on the Mainland, or for failing to publicly demonstrate your love, are unspecified.

As Eric Blair himself recognized, of all the state agencies, "the Ministry of Love was the really frightening one." As Blair explained, state-sponsored demonstrations of love and hate are flip sides of the same propaganda coin: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J7Kznmrc3o4

Dangovt expects not just your loyalty, your optimism, and your hatred of Ottawa, but also a demonstration of your love. While the leaders of the regime sport deep Florida suntans, the public is expected to show their love by contenting themselves with the Newfoundland summer. If you love Newfoundland, you will spend all your vacation money in Newfoundland. If you don't...well, maybe you just don't love the fatherland enough.

As the web site directs, "This summer, vacation at home. And do it for love."