Friday, January 14, 2011

A Different Act

A Different Act

Well, that didn’t take long. Less than a month after Danny Williams resigned as Premier, Kathy Dunderdale announced her intention to succeed him. Unless something utterly unexpected happens during the next week, Premier Dunderdale will lead the Tories into the next provincial election.

While The Telegram has called the PC leadership race a fait accompli, it looks like the Tories are changing brands as well as leaders. If the speed of Premier Dunderdale’s ascension is remarkable, the makeover in the government’s rhetoric is equally noteworthy. Before the ink dried on Williams’ resignation letter, the provincial government dropped its combative stance towards the Newfoundland and Labrador Medical Association. On 8 December, less than a week after Williams left office, CBC reported that Jerome Kennedy had softened his tone towards the NLMA. “I spent 20 years in a courtroom and oftentimes I had to admit I was wrong,” Kennedy told the House of Assembly. He continued, “If in fact I am wrong, that is something I can admit and accept again but at this point in time ... we are concentrating on trying to get a deal with the doctors, which is what the public wants.” Sure enough, within a couple of weeks the government managed to do something that it couldn’t do for over a year: negotiate settlements with the NLMA, as well as the fifteen striking NAPE workers at the Burin/Marystown Community Training and Employment Board.

This makeover hasn’t been limited to health care negotiations. When Premier Dunderdale stepped before the microphones to announce her intention to succeed Williams, she was flanked by only her daughter. With no hoopla or fanfare, the contrast with Williams’ style could not be more striking. Her pleasant, low-key news conference featured none of the aggression on which Williams habitually relied. Dunderdale acknowledged that while her government will follow Williams’ policies faithfully, she will be a “different act.” And if the early messages are any indication, her premiership will be a kinder, gentler version of Williams.

Rebranding offers Premier Dunderdale an opportunity to distinguish herself from Williams, but it also carries political risks. For a decade Danny Williams was the Tory brand in Newfoundland and Labrador. He dominated his party more than any other political leader since Joey Smallwood. In the wake of Williams’ resignation, there has been much talk of the pride and confidence that he instilled in his followers; however, throughout his political career, he also relied incessantly on enmity and vengeance. Williams himself addressed this legacy in his resignation speech: “You know, I laugh when critics and some reporters say that I’m nothing more than a fighter, someone always looking for a racket, never happy unless I’m taking someone on. Well, folks, I’m here to tell you today that those people are right.”

Danny Williams was able to capitalize on this image because anger sells politically. By jumping from one quarrel to the next, Williams’ Tories were able to set the political agenda, define the opposition, and manipulate public opinion with unprecedented success. Williams defined strength as belligerence; while the public may have wearied of the racket, it’s unclear whether voters will be receptive to a new style of Tory governance.

Premier Dunderdale faces a difficult choice. On the one hand, if she successfully rebrands the Tories as the party of reasonableness and accommodation, she risks losing a major part of the Williams legacy. Williams was able to exploit his persona as the fighting Newfoundlander to keep the opposition parties on the defensive; if Dunderdale abandons this modus operandi, she risks giving them the opportunity to rebrand themselves. If the new Premier decides not to pursue political feuds, she risks losing control over the province’s political agenda. And if it looks like she’s avoiding a fight, she risks appearing weak.

On the other hand, if she chooses to embrace Williams’ combative style, she risks losing legitimacy if she cannot carry it off. Danny Williams was able to get away with his endless bickering because he projected authenticity: he genuinely seemed to relish conflict and to dislike his enemies as much as he said he did. Unless Premier Dunderdale can find a way to create her own version of the fighting premier persona, she risks alienating the electorate if she mimics William’s acerbic style. If she begins to sound inauthentic, she will quickly lose popular support.

By calling herself a “different act,” Dunderdale has signalled that she’s well aware of the challenge of succeeding Danny Williams. The fact that no one else has yet decided to run for the PC leadership indicates that she is not the only Tory who understands how hard it will be to manage the Williams legacy.

Published in The Telegram, 8 January 2011. My thanks to Russell Wangersky and the editorial staff at The Telegram.

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....

Monday, November 9, 2009

Orwellian News Downsized

I tried to kill off Winston last spring, but it proved harder than I thought. I hope that the second time works. Geoff Meeker has prompted a discussion that (while at once depressing and interesting) gives me a good opportunity to downsize Orwellian News and lay off its entire staff.

This blog was born in frustration with the Telegram, so it's only fitting that it dies in frustration with the Telegram. I have already had my say about the relationship between newspapers and blogs, so there's nothing to be gained by making that argument again. And reading professional journalists pour gas on flame wars, and then haughtily slag bloggers when they object, is just too much to stomach when you're writing for free. As I wrote today in an email to another blogger, I have said most of the things I wanted to say, so it's time for Winston to take a walk in the snow (or a long walk on a short wharf, depending on your metaphorical inclination). I see that Peter Jackson has already pounced on Geoff's blog; he wasn't funny last summer, and he's still not funny, but that's what passes for wit in the newsroom, I suppose.

The point I made on Geoff Meeker's blog is the same one I'd like to end on: there is a reason why the blogs critical of the Williams regime are so much better than the pro-government commentary.

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 ├╝ber-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.