Monday, December 6, 2010

Are We There Yet? The Politics of Anticipation after Danny Williams

Are We There Yet? The Politics of Anticipation after Danny Williams

Like everything else about Danny Williams, this was no ordinary resignation. Mr. Williams’ departure marks a provincial watershed, one of those rare moments when a political culture is on the cusp of transformation. As the tributes keep pouring in, it is tempting to see Williams’ premiership as marking a new era in the history of Newfoundland and Labrador. According to the conventional wisdom, 2003 is Year One, because it signaled the end of defeatism and the beginning of a new polity based on pride, strength, and determination. Danny Williams built on a resurgent Newfoundland nationalism that was already prevalent in the political culture, even in the Liberal administration of Roger Grimes; but Williams took this nationalism in a new direction. Williams' first task was to make a rhetorical break with the past: far from being trapped by history, Newfoundlanders were now going to break free from the shackles of federalist oppression. As luck would have it, the Tories took power as the price of oil shot up dramatically and many commentators started talking about "the Williams effect," which drew a sharp line between the alleged weak Liberal past and the strong Tory present.

In his seven years in power, Danny Williams accomplished nothing less than the rebranding of an entire province. This rebranding was both literal and figurative, as the government commissioned a new provincial logo complete with a new spelling of the province’s name. Danny Williams took his nationalist politics further than any premier would dare (Brian Peckford included), and in late 2004 he ordered the Canadian flag hauled down as he engineered a showdown with Prime Minister Paul Martin. Looking back on this recent event, what is remarkable is how unremarkable it has become: few commentators even bother to mention the flag incident any longer, let alone debate its significance. What is remembered instead is Williams’ triumphalism. Victory over Ottawa, victory over the oil companies, victory over AbitibiBowater. As with every aspect of the Williams regime, he relentlessly branded himself, his party, and now the province as heroic. With the achievement of "have status" due to oil revenues, Williams took the province to the promised land that Brian Peckford could only dream of. He embraced a type of ethnic nationalism that went further than the provincialist rhetoric of his predecessors – he publicly invoked the term "race" to describe the people of Newfoundland and Labrador – and his relentless personal attacks on enemies and rivals created new standards of incivility in public debate.

But underneath this political wave of change was a stronger current of historical continuity. Mr. Williams' premiership marked not the beginning of a new era but the end of an old one. Like all of his predecessors since Joey Smallwood, he was obsessed with natural resource development in general and Churchill Falls in particular. He saw himself as breaking with the past because he would succeed where they had failed. Far from attempting to take the province’s economy in a new direction, Mr. Williams wanted to fulfill Mr. Smallwood's dream and make Newfoundland and Labrador a regional energy powerhouse. Like most people of his generation, Mr. Williams viewed Churchill Falls as the holy grail of provincial politics. Development of the Lower Churchill represented not just economic development but cultural redemption. For forty years, the Lower Churchill has been the ultimate prize in provincial politics, the Mother of All Deals. When Bill Rowe prophesied in his recent book that signing such a deal would make Danny Williams "the greatest of our premiers," he was repeating a conventional wisdom older than many of his readers. The fact that Mr. Williams chose to resign almost immediately after he signed a tentative agreement that may develop part of the Lower Churchill demonstrated the power it wields over the provincial psyche.

If Churchill Falls is the alpha and omega of provincial politics, what happens now? How does a political culture evolve once it has reached the promised land, where have-not is no more? Mr. Williams did not change the province’s political culture so much as he embodied it. And for the past forty years, that culture has been predicated on the politics of anticipation. For two generations, Newfoundlanders have waited for political deliverance from the injustices of the past. This anticipation created a political teleology so deeply ingrained that it's hardly recognized, let alone questioned. The unspoken assumption has always been that Newfoundland and Labrador is not just a place but a time: it's always on the cusp of going somewhere, becoming something, fighting someone. To be a Newfoundlander is to know in your bones that the next big announcement is just around the corner, because one day the sun will surely shine. Being Premier of Newfoundland and Labrador has meant never having to say you’re sorry, because suffering have-not status and Ottawa’s perfidy justifies doing whatever is necessary, from hauling down a national flag to slandering opponents as traitors and betrayers. Yet if politics has meant struggle, what happens when the struggle is won?

The resignation of Mr. Williams offers an important opportunity to debate this question. It presents a chance to reflect on the province’s political culture and the popular faith in natural resources as the solution to every problem. The political narrative remains a story of oppression at the hands of outsiders, whether Prime Ministers in Ottawa or Premiers in Quebec, based on a hard-wired belief that the province is rich in natural resources but poor in politics: if only we had full control over our resources, so the argument runs, we would solve our problems. The flaw in this mercantilist mindset is that it thinks of wealth in literal terms of staples that can be sold. It forgets Adam Smith’s dictum that wealth is what you make, not what you hold. Smith warned that gold bullion was a means to an end, not an end in itself. The province's bullion may have changed from fish and lumber to oil and hydro, but the fixation on resource extraction remains the same across generations. If you look around the world, most countries heavily dependent on natural resources, such as oil and mineral deposits, have stubbornly high rates of unemployment, severe income inequality, and a raft of social problems. As the gulf between rural and urban Newfoundland widens with each passing year, there is a pressing need to focus away from have-status and towards the demographic challenges facing hundreds of communities across the province. It's now time to consider what comes after the hydro deals are signed and the oil runs out.

Published in The Telegram, 4 December 2010. My thanks to Russell Wangersky and the editorial staff at The Telegram.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

What They Don't Want You To See

With ABC now long dead, and the campaign against Prime Minister Harper vanished down the memory hole, most media outlets (both national and provincial) seem to have come down with a curious case of political amnesia.

If the recent Abitibi settlement is a sign of things to come as we get ready for the 2011 elections, then here is a video that should be running 24/7.

And if Danny Williams attempts to succeed Brian Tobin in the role of Captain Canada, then here is a news story that should also be running 24/7.

And if Danny Williams wraps himself in the Canadian flag and takes a run at federal politics, then I hope that someone out there will remind the public that this is the same person who said of the Maple Leaf, "I'm not willing to fly that flag anymore in the province."

Monday, July 26, 2010

What's wrong with this picture?

Take a look at this happy little picture.

Notice something odd, other than the admirably portly frame of the winning athlete?

If a picture speaks a thousand words, then this one says all that needs to be said about not only the screwed-up priorities of the RCMP and its out-of-control PR machine, but also the people who consider it perfectly appropriate to have full-dress federal police officers mugging for the camera at every major sporting event in this country. (I was going to say that the mounties are, presumably, doing it at full pay, but this may have been an overtime event. Either way, think of this picture the next time you read a government press release about the dire need for fiscal restraint).

I wasn't going to bother exhuming Winston, but then it occurred to me that if the RCMP are so media obsessed, they probably have someone staffed full-time to google for online commentary -- so even a comment from a dead blogger might get filed.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Russia and Newfoundland, 2010 Version

I tried to post this comment on a post at Bond Papers, but it wouldn't work for some reason. Perhaps it's too long. I'm not intending to bring Winston back from the dead, but now that I've written this comment, I don't want to junk it.

Ed's reference to the link between NL politics and rum reminded me of something I wrote a while ago. In a paper I presented to the NHS's synposium on Newfoundland nationalism, I pointed out some of the similarities between Russia and Newfoundland, and I compared rum in NL to vodka in Russia.

Seven years later, much has changed in both Russia and Newfoundland. Back in 2003, I argued that the present did not really exist in NL's political culture, because all that mattered was the past and the future. That is no longer true. The Tories did not, of course, invent Newfoundland nationalism, but they have created a new variant of it. This variant focuses on the present, and 2003 is now Year One in the new nationalist calendar.

I am not suggesting that this is true for all nationalists -- there is no single Newfoundland nationalism but, rather, several overlapping Newfoundland nationalisms -- but the official Optimistic Correctness obsesses on the recent past and the present. Tories still talk about the future, of course, but it's quite different from the "some day the sun will shine" rhetoric of the Peckford era. Under Williams nationalism, have-not is no more, the future is now, and mastery is ours.

Which brings me back to the comparison with Russia. Under the leadership of Vladimir Putin (first as President, now as Prime Minister), Russia has witnessed a rise in neo-nationalism, also based on the dramatic rise in oil prices and what many would call a state-sponsored cult of personality. Russia is also facing a demographic crisis and an urgent need to diversify its economy beyond natural resources. Like the government of NL, the Russian state has embarked on programs to increase its birth rate. And like Danny Williams, Vladimir Putin has lashed out at traitors and those who betray the motherland.

Unlike Mr. Williams, however, Mr. Putin has focused on reducing his country's reliance on natural resources. While the centrepiece of Mr. Williams' economic strategy is NALCOR, Mr. Putin's government poured $5 billion into the creation of RUSNANO, a state corporation dedicated to nanotechnology. From what I can gather, RUSNANO has been a boondoggle, but the fact that the Russians are at least trying to diversify their economy through new industries is worth noting, because they are sitting on more natural resources than Danny Williams can dream of.

If you'll pardon the lengthy comment, a couple of observations on the NP piece. What's striking are the absences. I follow NL news fairly closely, and I cannot remember off the top of my head the last time I read a reference to the province's unemployment rate. (I'm sure readers can correct me on this point). But the question I have is this: even if -- and it's a huge if -- the lower Churchill project becomes a reality, after the initial construction jobs what would be the long-term, direct impact on provincial employment? I ask because the way things have been going since 2003, NL appears to be following the model of Saudi Arabia, which uses its petrodollars to keep people employed in the public sector and mask serious socio-economic problems.

The other thing that struck me about the NP piece is the machismo. Yes, it's always been present in the province's political culture, but there was something about the interview that left the impression that this was all about leaving a manly impression. From the fact that the Premier can eat onion rings on top of his fish & chips (displaying arterial prowess beyond mere middle-aged mortals), to the gratuitous references to feces, fighting, and fans, the article was meant to show us, as the subtitle unsubtly put it, that "he isn't going away anytime soon."

But if the province is in the midst of a "perfect storm of prosperity," why on earth would he need to take time to schedule a puff-piece to proclaim to pundits, pollsters, and the public that he isn't leaving?

Tuesday, January 5, 2010


Now that Winston has been dead for a couple of months, I thought I'd conduct a post-mortem to mark the New Year. Kicking the blogging habit was harder than I thought it would be. Blogging offers the type of instant gratification that's rare in life: you write something off the top of your head, or the tip of your emotions, and then up it pops, where a hundred people read your words within 24 hours. No editors, bosses, forms, bills, red-tape, or anything else to keep you from having your say when you want to say it. When you compare this to the real world of family and work -- the world of negotiation, compromise, collective responsibility, and split-the-difference outcomes -- it's not hard to understand why blogging, facebook, and twitter are so popular.

I'm home today recovering from a surgery, typing with my laptop in my lap and without access to my mouse -- so whatever I bang out in this post, it won't have hyperlinks because it's too hard to insert them using the pad. But since I have an hour to spare today, I want to give a post-mortem based on some trends I noticed when I was blogging regularly. Bond Papers recently gave Ed's manifesto on why he writes, which prompted me to reflect on why I started blogging a year ago. For me, the impetus to blog was simple: it was a reaction against bullying. One of the dividing lines between supporters and opponents of Danny Williams is the line between those who accept (either wholeheartedly or reluctantly) his bullying and those who cannot stomach it.

For me, the style and the content of Williamsism cannot be separated into neat political boxes. As much as I would like to overlook the hysteria, hyperbole, and histrionics, I just could not do it. This may place me in a minority -- perhaps a small minority -- but minorities matter. As J.S. Mill observed, the challenge for liberal democracy is to guard against the tyranny of the majority. And, if I'm going to be truly honest with myself, I have to admit that my opposition to Danny Williams was as much emotional as it was intellectual. Whenever I saw a clip of him, I recoiled. My dislike for Williams meant that I had a difficult time understanding his popularity, which I still find puzzling; but it also meant that I didn't have to fight the spell, known as "The Williams Effect."

If there was one thing that struck me the most when blogging about NL politics, it was the Williams spell. This spell works in different ways: from journalists making excuses for his inappropriate behaviour -- or downplaying "they should be shot" comments as if they were somehow acceptable in the football game of politics, or just amusing anecdotes -- to ordinary people angrily (almost gleefully) denouncing Yvonne Jones as a traitor in the comments section of the Telegram or CBC. As 2009 progressed, there were increasing references to the problem of online vulgarity and the perceived descent of public discourse; yet this commentary focused almost exclusively on the public/voters, not on the Premier. When Danny Williams slammed the electorate after the byelection loss in the Straits, no one in the mainstream media called him on it. They took him at his word -- "lessons learned," as it was put -- and there was no investigative reporting based on actual interviews with actual voters about actual reasons for the Tories' loss.

Which brings me to the online dust-up that followed the Straits byelection. In retrospect, the clash that erupted on Geoff Meeker's blog was inevitable. It was just a question of where and when. Before the Tories won the second byelection, there was a moment -- a fleeting moment, as we now know -- when there was blood in the political water. As a result, the online commentary became harsher, more personal, and more emotional. The dust-up had several short-term effects. It marked the end of Geoff Meeker's political commentary; since the incident, Meeker on Media has focused solely on media stories. This is, I think, a significant loss for local political commentary: not only did Geoff write incisive commentaries, but he also facilitated interesting debates, and his blog was the only one where a mixture of bloggers, journalists, and others participated in genuine, substantive discussions. The incident also prompted the suspension of comments on Polemic and Paradox, which has only recently been re-opened. And it illustrated the disdain some (perhaps most) professional journalists have for amateur and semi-amateur bloggers, and vice versa.

But despite the gulf between bloggers and journalists, the dust-up (which quickly spilled over to P&P and other sites) showed that they were both deeply engaged in a culture of machismo. There were repeated references to balls, stones, guts -- as commentators beat their chests as hard as they could. This chest-beating was not an isolated incident but rather part of a longer pattern whereby commentators focused on three principal issues: identity, experience, and partisanship. All three became wrapped into a talisman of masculinity. (Didn't anyone notice the absence of women in this slag-fest?). As commentators fought over who had the most experience and the least partisanship, no one questioned whether having decades of professional experience or a clean political past actually determined the merits of a respective argument. When the dust settled, it became clear that this fight was more about respect than anything else. While commentators disagreed sharply, they all agreed that they felt disrespected. The debate was, in retrospect, a microcosm of Williamsism, where machismo is the only political currency that really matters.

As for my own role in the online dust-up, I cannot claim to be blameless. It's remarkable how emotional (and how quickly emotional) the experience of online debate can become. I should have waited until later to shut-down Orwellian News, which was something I was planning to do; but Peter Jackson's comments got under my skin. I never liked blogging anonymously, and his barbs hit a sore spot. (And, I have to admit, his Ross Perot shot was kinda funny). I also may have been rather pedantic in my comments on P&P, but the sight of reading a blogger tout journalistic standards while being barely literate got to me. I also felt -- and I still strongly feel -- that P&P's attack on Geoff Meeker was grossly unfair and opportunistic.

So where does that leave things for 2010? Bond Papers seems to be consolidating its dominance in terms of political blogs. With its recent makeover, Bond Papers seems to be trying to move away from overt partisanship and towards a greater emphasis on policy. It's interesting to note that the online commentary on Bond Papers tends to spike whenever the question of partisanship and Liberal ties raises its head. When I objected to Peter Jackson's "Ed and Wally show" remark, it was, in part, because it was a slur on bloggers who do not take their marching orders from Labradore or Bond Papers. While Bond Papers will continue to dominate online political commentary, the Telegram will, I suspect, continue to tread a careful editorial line in print journalism. The elliptical metaphors and sports analogies may dull the edge of the editorials (though the string of football analogies was just tiresome), but sooner or later the Telegram will be forced to take a harder, and clearer, position on whether it supports Danny Williams. I have no idea of when this will happen, but when it does, it will be interesting to see if Williams can get away with blacklisting the only daily newspaper in St. John's.

According to Google Analytics, a surprising number of readers in NL still visit Orwellian News. I can dismiss hits from places like China generated via a random google search for the literary Winston Smith, but the continued readership from NL indicates that there was something I said over the past year that stuck. Tracking software is fun at first, but it soon creates pressure to sustain viewership, which is particularly important for the increasing numbers of blogs with online advertisements. To keep your numbers up, you have to blog every day, and this means one of two things: either you devote much of your workday to producing research-based commentary, which means that blogging becomes semi-professional; or you use your blog as a type of exhibitionist diary, which means that blogging becomes hyper-personal. In the case of the former, the blog mirrors a newspaper column; in the case of the latter, it mirrors a facebook page. Some bloggers try to combine the two, with mixed results. In the end, I could not sustain the former because it absorbed too much time (though my blog made no pretenses to actual reporting or objectivity), while I was unwilling to engage in the latter. I'm glad I kept a blog in 2009, but while it was fun to be part of the political debate, it's also easier to be on the sidelines.

This reminds me of the Simpson's Halloween special (sometime in the mid-1990s), when the townspeople repeated the jingle (written by Paul Anka) "just don't look," in order to rid Springfield of a sourge of giant advertising-sign monsters. If only this worked for politics as well as advertising....