Saturday, October 31, 2009

Of Horses and Newspapers

From today's front-page news:

'He still hopes to make the Lower Churchill hydroelectric project a reality before leaving office. "I'm definitely going to hang around to see if I can get it done," said the premier. But Williams said he's not going to stick around forever "to beat a dead horse" if a deal cannot be sealed, nor will he sign a bad deal for the sake of getting one done while in office.'

Look at the front page of today's Telegram (you may need to re-focus your eyes to take in all of the photo), and tell me that's it not all about him. Try and stomach the tired references to his business life and his accomplishments and, if you can, read and reflect on the last line of the article. Makes you wonder just who is beating a dead horse.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Deal or No Deal

As the second-wave of commentary washes in, the debate seems to be revolving around whether the byelection is a big deal, no-big deal, or a split-the-difference deal. Regardless of how we categorize it, today's power deal eclipses the byelection anyways.

I think that we can all agree that this one will indeed be a very Big Deal. The question is whether it's a bad deal or a good deal. I leave it to the experts to parse the economics but, as for the politics, it's strangely good news for Danny Williams in the short-term. Williams' efforts to stoke the fires of nationalist rage seem (at least so far) to be less effective than past angry-dad moments, but today's Globe story shows that at least one national newspaper still thinks it's all about him. The impact of this unfolding story will be felt in different ways -- from interprovincial relations to internal Tory politics -- but one thing is for certain: Williams now has an excellent excuse (to be charitable, let's even call it a reason) for the lack of progress on the Lower Churchill.

I would never pretend to know enough about the intricacies of such mega-projects to make an economic prediction, but I know a thing or two about politics. And if the Lower Churchill is now a dead deal (to be charitable, let's call it on life-support), then all political bets are off. As I said earlier, I think Williams plans to stay on until a deal is signed on Churchill Falls, but if that's no longer possible, then he may take a walk in the snow earlier than the pundits have predicted. (Keep in mind that Trudeau's resignation took Ottawa completely by surprise). I have no reason to doubt Williams when he says that being Premier is an awfully tough racket, and it certainly does not look like he's enjoying it at all these days. And I seriously doubt whether the Tory caucus is a happy-happy, joy-joy sort of group this Fall, given the anger issues we've witnessed.

With the prospect of two more byelections, a House that will have to be opened sometime, and an Opposition that has sniffed a wee bit of blood, the political calculus has evolved. It may be a subtle change, but subtle changes often lead to important consequences. There seems to be a popular assumption -- a wrong assumption -- that for NL to be witnessing a big deal, it must look, smell, and quack like a BIG DEAL. But politics is never so simple and rarely so obvious.

Let's connect the dots between Tuesday's byeelection (little) deal and today's power (big) deal. On the one hand, you have a Tory leader who threw everything and the kitchen sink into a byelection and lost, thereby making the stakes far higher than they normally would have been. On the other hand, you have a Premier who threw everything and the kitchen sink into a hydroelectric megaproject that looks increasingly like it will never happen. Throw in a steady ministerial attrition rate, a skin that's famously thin, and the usual assortment of crises in the fishery, health care, and forestry. Add the smaller brush-fires, such as the unresolved problems with MUN and the NLMA. Factor in the legacy of ABC and the still-dismal relationship with Ottawa. Calculate how many oil deals are left to be made. Toss in the province's public spending and demographics. Consider that the Liberals will be a more difficult opponent in the next provincial election.

If you take a hard look at the actual political landscape rather than the polls, it does not look pretty for the Tories. When I argued that we've entered Late Williamsism, I was careful to say, quite emphatically, that this does not mean that the end of Tory rule was in sight. But just because a party remains in power does not mean that its rule remains the same. Williams may have many more days ahead of him as Premier, but his best ones are behind him. He may be able to pull a rabbit out of the hydro hat, but taking on Hydro-Quebec is nothing like brow-beating Paul Martin.

In the end, we need to make a distinction between what's possible and what's probable. It's possible that Williams will sign the mother of all deals, but it's probable that he won't. That probability matters more, in the end, than a dozen brace of CRA polls.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Lessons Learned

Nottawa and Geoff Meeker have the best analysis thus far, but this CBC story is also inadvertently revealing, because it demonstrates four lessons:

1) Call it what you will -- personality cult, Late Williamsism, the Williams brand, Dannystan, whatever -- but the mainstream media are deeply complicit in its production and perpetuation. The symbiotic relationship between Williams and the media is so deep that I doubt whether the media even questions whether it is appropriate to have a post-mortem story on the byelection dominated (in title, photo, and sound bites -- the trinity of journalism) by The Premier.

2) As is so often the case, we're witnessing the alteration between the War-Danny and Zen-Danny. Whereas War-Danny was out in full force right up to voting day, today Zen-Danny is again at peace with the piece. It is, of course, no surprise that he is saying that this is no surprise; it's perhaps even no surprise that he's saying that this is a good thing, because it is (so the CBC tells us) a useful lesson...

3) ...But it's still a surprise to read Williams saying this: "It's a good check for a party that's been in government now for six years, that [is] showing popularity all through, and [has] the support of the people of the province." It's hard to follow the logic here (perhaps because there is so little of it to be found), but Williams seems to be saying that the defeat was good because the government is so popular. Wow! We knew that popularity could be used to explain just about everything in NL, but who knew that it could also explain an electoral defeat? Thus when the Tories win, it's because they are popular, and when they lose, it's because they are popular!

4) While no one seems to be paying much attention to Yvonne Jones, she made one of the most relevant comments I've seen today. According to CBC, Liberal Leader Yvonne Jones said people should see the result as a comment on the management style of Williams. "People want a voice, and there isn't a voice inside the Williams government," she said. "Most of the backbenchers are silent. Many of the cabinet ministers are allowing critical cuts to happen in their districts without ever speaking out against it." My hypothesis is that the question of democratic governance was far more important than the pundits and politicos realized. There is a persistent misconception in Town that style and substance can somehow be separated, that political rhetoric and economic reality are discrete phenomena that bear little relation to each other. Thus commentators overlook Williams' violent rhetoric because of the price of oil. Thus it is acceptable for the Premier to say that someone should be shot because he is spending lots of public money and is polling high. Thus the temptation is to accept the Faustian bargain of the endless war against the endless enemies of the people because it's a small price to pay for have-status and, as Professor Marland put it so superlatively, Williams is incredibly, phenomenally popular. I think that the byelection shows that the bargain may not be as good as it seemed.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Can we use the M-word now?

Some early observations:

1) Those who predicted that this would be a three-way race were wrong. Without vote-splitting, opposition to the Tories was concentrated in the Liberal vote.

2) Look for the Tory spin-doctors to start early and relentlessly, trotting out the talking point that this was always a Liberal district, so the loss is no biggie.

3) Rev. Arthur Elliott was right when he said "I think in terms of participatory democracy, it puts the shine back on," though for different reasons than he thought.

4) However much the Danny Kool-Aid Brigade will try to deny it, the byelection will give the Liberals vital momentum.

5) The only question is how much momentum it will create and whether it will have longer ramifications. It's too early yet to predict any sort of turning point, but it's no longer premature to speak about momentum.

6) The result shows the limitations of vote-buying, intimidation, and cabinet carpet-bombing. It shows that when people feel disrespected, their vote cannot be bought back. Commentators and politicos have tended to assume that economics always trumps politics: throw enough money at a problem, and it will go away. The assumption is that if people are upset, they are only upset about economic issues. The assumption is that issues of democratic governance rank at best a distant runner-up to the hard issues of roads, jobs, and health care. My hypothesis is that this byelection demonstrates that this assumption is wrong.

7) Yvonne Jones deserves credit. I was, like Nottawa, worried about the most recent news cycle, but she obviously knew how to manage the retail politics in the district.

8) Professors Marland and Dunn were quite a ways off the mark.

9) P&P wasn't much closer, either.

10) The pressure is now on for Williams to call the next byelection.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Paradoxes of Branding

I was going to post this as a comment on P&P's piece on the byelection, but I thought I'd post it on my own blog instead:

Here is one thing that everyone can agree on: this is no ordinary government. To Williams' supporters, he is super-excellent; to his detractors, he is super-terrible. But everyone can agree that he's super-something.

And with that comes super-expectations, which Williams himself has stoked furiously from day one. Since the day he took office, he has raised expectations and worked tirelessly to brand himself and the province as (to quote) the centre of the universe. Everything about this regime has always been super-sized, including its penchant for recklessness.

Thus the Williams brand depends on maintaining an image of invulnerability, which is why the Tories are so desperate to hold on to the seat. They know more than anyone how much their brand relies on the image of omnipotence.

Whereas a normal government could shrug off a minor loss in a byelection as part of the normal cycle of politics, the Williams government cannot afford to be mortal, because to do so would endanger the brand.

This helps to explain the strange fragility of the government, which over-reacts to any and all criticism with a disproportionate fury and panic. Even while they ride high in the polls, they act as if they are constantly under threat. They have a near-monopoly on power, yet they seem to be stressed out all the time. Why?

Well, because maintaining the brand of invulnerability takes an awful lot of time, energy, and luck. And sooner or later, lucky streaks end. If the Liberals win (which is still a big if), they may be able to start generating some momentum and perhaps get off life-support.

No one is suggesting that the Williams bubble will all of a sudden burst, even if they lose next week. But the bubble might develop a hole and start seeping support.

For a normal-government, that's the normal price to pay for governing. For a super-government, that's a looming catastrophe.

The interesting irony is that they are doing this to themselves. If there is a real story underneath all the rhetoric and posturing, it's the fact that we're witnessing how self-destructive this regime can be.

Tautology Alert Update:

Thanks to Nottawa for publicizing this fascinating little gem from the CP. It seems that MUN's political science professors have never met a tautology that they didn't like. But what's with the "key," as in "there is no key alternative"? Who said that the alternative had to be key, or does Jones need to have the key to the Chamber of Incredibly-Phenomenal Secrets before the Liberals can become an alternative? Or, since the Telegram is reporting that Williams has declared war on Hydro-Quebec, does "key" refer the suitcase with the launch codes?

Friday, October 16, 2009

Politics of Popularity

It's another sign of the times that the Opposition feels that its most effective tool (perhaps its only effective tool) against the Williams regime is poll numbers. In the current political culture, any form of low polling is seen as kryptonite.

This past week we witnessed a political scientist trotting out the tautology that Williams faces no threat because he is popular, and he is popular because he faces no threat. In other words, Williams is popular because he is powerful and powerful because he is popular. As I've before, it's funny 'cause it's true. It is therefore unsurprising that when the Liberals finally manage to get some positive media coverage, they place all their political eggs in the popularity basket. To invoke a different metaphor, polls have become the water in which our political fish swim.

Of course, there are numerous problems with this culture of poll et impera. There are not only the issues of poll goosing and media manipulation, but also the question of popularity versus actual support. Williams' popularity may be a mile wide, but how deep is it outside the Tubble, i.e., the Townie Bubble? (And, to take the Teletubbies analogy a bit further, both rely on an inane optimism replete with creepy sun-king).

I'm sure that the Tories' internal polling shows that their support is alarmingly shallow in some areas off the Avalon, and I suspect that they are worried about the byelection. The problem for Williams is not only that he must win but that he must win big-time. For Williams, mere victory is never enough; it must be über-victory, a crushing demonstration of total supremacy.

Even a relatively close victory could deflate the popularity bubble, if only a bit, and Williams knows that his power rests on the image of pop-omnipotence. He must be seen as not just popular, but heroically popular. Thus it was important for Dunn to insist that Williams occupies a popularity summit unknown to mere mortal premiers like Clyde Wells.

Sustaining this popularity feedback-loop requires as much time and energy as actual governing, which is why we've seen such an explosion of PR advisers, media handlers, communication hacks, and call-in teletubbies. And whatever you want to say about the Williams government, it has been remarkably candid about its belief that it can govern by polling fiat.

For Williams, the beauty of popularity politics is that it's self-reinforcing. People tell pollsters that they support Williams in part (perhaps in large part, in some areas outside the Tubble) because there is no viable alternative. So he is popular because the Liberals are not. And vice versa. Getting out of this Teletubbie loop is easier said than done, but trotting out poll numbers won't do the trick. As they demonstrated during the showdown with the nurses' union, the Williams government knows when to make a tactical retreat, which has just been announced. Jerome Kennedy has become for the Tories what Roger Grimes was for the Liberals, and he will do what needs to be done (Kennedy better watch out that he might get what he wishes for). And to take the analogy further, we should point out that it took a party civil war and a bitter leadership convention before the Liberals began their final decline -- and even then Grimes had two years in power.

In a post on Nottawa, I speculated about who, if anyone, would play the role of Leo Barry in the Williams regime. I was referring to the question of whether anyone would dare cross the floor. Because the way things are going, it will take a floor-crossing or two before things begin to change. While we have entered the period of Late Williamsism, we need to keep in mind that this period could last as long as the Liberals remain in disarray. As I said before, in NL governing parties tend to rot from within before they fall, but they still have to be pushed.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009


Crackberrygate is destined to generate some media traction, and the online comments at CBC make for some amusing and informative reading.

But crackberrygate also sheds valuable light on Oram's curiously short tenure as Minister of Health. It indicates that he may have been telling the whole truth and nothing but the truth, when he said:

A) He preferred paperless verbal briefings over written documents.

B) He was under a lot of stress.

C) Government spending was unsustainable.

If nothing else, this bolsters his claim that he was a stressed-out, email-dependent minister who knew literally first-hand that government spending was out of control. Imagine how you would feel if you were glued so closely to a crackberry. The CBC story focuses on the money rather than the time, but stop for a minute and think about the effects of spending hours upon hours upon hours shackled to email/phone.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Iggy Popped

I've received a couple of emails this morning asking about my missing post on Jeffrey Simpson. I had written a piece earlier this morning, but then I deleted it after reading the final version posted online.

I was going to point out that Simpson's patronizing column (I guess patronizing is redundant here) is part of a larger problem whereby policy gets conflated with politics. Simpson proposes a rather sensible policy -- raising the GST by two points to deal with the federal deficit -- but he is willfully deaf to the timing and the politics.

I was going to point out some of the errors in Simpson's argument, but I'm getting sickened by the feeding frenzy that we're witnessing. In less than a month, the media's feast on Ignatieff has helped to propel the Tories to near-majority status in the polls.

Today's Globe offers readers another generous serving of roasted Ignatieff: a lead story on his gender problem, plus a Wente parody, poll numbers, two other Liberal-negative columns, and a gratuitous media review. It's getting too rich a diet, even for me. As I said last month, I don't like Ignatieff, but I plan to vote for him.

Most of these pundits profess a desire for a change in political culture, but after watching the relentless feeding frenzy for several weeks, it seems to me that they are actually enjoying what amounts to a political homicide. (Whether the homicide is suicide, manslaughter, or murder is best left to forensic historians).

Which brings me back to Simpson and his advocacy of tax increases. Simpson loves to rant about the need for prudence and planning, and he never ceases to chide politicians for their recklessness.

But here's a couple of questions for the oracle of Ottawa. Is it reckless for pundits to participate so gleefully in the destruction of Ignatieff? And is it reckless for a political columnist to propose a policy (tax hikes), during a recession, which would be political suicide? (Bonus question: by the way, what's the plan for when the destruction of Ignatieff is completed?) . Taking Ignatieff down a notch is one thing; taking him out is quite another.

Simpson has the luxury of dealing with politics as it should be; Ignatieff has the burden of dealing with politics as it is.

Should have googled it first update:

As I should have known, I'm far from the first person to pun Iggy Popped. But the fact that Rick Mercer ranted on Ignatieff shows just how easy a target he is. I stopped watching Mercer a couple of years ago, so I didn't see this until I googled. The funniest google result was this.

An Observation and a Prediction

Observation: Rob Antle's story in today's Telegram illustrates two trends in NL politics. First, over the past year or so, physicians have been getting increasingly frustrated with the Williams government on a number of issues that go far beyond the Cameron Inquiry. They have become increasingly media savvy, and they constitute one of the few independent political forces that can effectively challenge Danny Williams.

Second, over the past year or so, Lorraine Michael has consistently outperformed the Liberals. She has got out in front of key opposition issues and used the media far more effectively than Yvonne Jones. Rob Antle relies on a letter provided by the NDP, but the fact that he quotes only Michael is not unusual. In many CBC and Telegram stories over the past year, Michael has either monopolized the media coverage or marginalized the Liberals. Political insiders will know why this is the case, but it's a clear trend.

Prediction: Antle's story will prompt a TASS communiqué within 48 hours. With the pressure of a byelection, it might even prompt a scrum. But it won't prompt another rhetorical shooting. Threatening to shoot civil servants is one thing, but Williams won't dare to threaten a surgeon publicly -- so it will be interesting to see who gets blamed.

Predictable Update:

Just in case you don't buy my observation about how Michael is running media laps around the Liberals, here is the latest example.