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.

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