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?