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.

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