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.

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