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However, as should be expected for a government on the move, both the shaming and kiss-the-backsides initiatives have been replaced by a new optimistic fatalism.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.

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