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.

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