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.