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Tuesday, February 27, 2007

The Stage Has Been Set in Newfoundland and Labrador

In a few short months Newfoundlanders and Labradorians will return to the polls in a provincial general election. For political junkies like me, the past few years have been the roller coaster ride of a lifetime. They say there’s never a dull time in Newfoundland and Labrador politics. This has never been truer. With the possible exception of the Smallwood era, the past few years have arguably been some of the most politically charged and exciting days since 1949.

The level of political intrigue and interest seen under the current government is at a fever pitch when compared to the decade of comatose foot dragging during the previous Liberal regime.

Since Premier Danny Williams’ took office the province has gone to war with two separate minority governments in Ottawa. Once over the Atlantic Accord and then over equalization and fallow field legislation. Big oil provided a fat target over benefit arrangements from Hebron Ben Nevis and new developments at Hibernia. Local spending scandals have abounded, MHAs have fallen by the roadside with their careers and legacy in ruins and at least one law suit is pending in the courts between a sitting Minister and a former Premier. All in all a buffet of activity capable of satisfying the tastes of anyone interested in the political scene.

Although the happenings of the past few years have been diverse and involved many players, through it all there’s been one underlying thread that winds its way around the issues like the knotted ropes in a fishing net. Some call it stubbornness, others determination. Some say it’s an angry streak a mile long while others believe it’s just smart politics. From my own perspective I think of it as shrewd negotiating. I’m referring of course to the general attitude, demeanor and actions of the Premier himself.

Williams started his political career very much in the spotlight. His first days in office were spent embroiled in a battle of wills with a weakened and desperate Prime Minister Paul Martin. Months of haggling, flag waving (and lowering) and public debate, eventually led Williams to win the battle for improved financial benefits from offshore oil.

With the fall of the Liberal government in Ottawa the next target became the current Conservative government and the challenges of equalization and fallow field legislation, battles that are still ongoing.

Williams fired the first shot in this latest war by publicly bitch slapping Stephen Harper during a visit to the province, much to the bemusement of the press and utter shock of party loyalists. He then crossed the Country in a highly publicized and very successful effort to gain support from western premiers over equalization. In doing so the province now finds itself with the very real possibility of gaining some sort of victory (partial or otherwise) on that front. A victory on fallow field legislation is much less assured but not beyond hope. In politics anything can happen, especially during elections.

When it comes to big oil Williams’ tactics have been far less effective but once again, who knows what tomorrow brings. Oil companies have deep pockets and very powerful friends. They aren’t susceptible to the whims of public opinion or election results like governments are and this makes them a much tougher opponent. Time will tell where those battles will ultimately be won or lost but the battles themselves serve a much broader and perhaps less recognized purpose.

The impact of past battles, won or lost, are being felt right across the province. Today we see evidence of a new way of doing business in Newfoundland and Labrador, the Danny Williams way, and this became abundantly clear this past week.

Without even saying a word on the subject, Williams attitude and the public perception of it, served to make one of the most troublesome companies in the province simply back away from their position and agree to let government take the lead. I’m referring of course to Fishery Products International and its decision to provide the provincial government with the details of two bids for the purchase of its assets.

This is a company that has locked horns with government every step of the way for years now. Provincial legislation says that the sale of the company is subject to provincial approval, but the meek acceptance of this reality by FPI is the first time in my memory that the company simply acquiesced to government demands with little more than a groan and a whimper.

My first reaction to the situation was to ask myself, “Where’s the bluster and fight we all expect from the board of FPI?” The answer came to me in a flash. The fight may not be completely gone from these guys but the stage has already been set for all negotiations or discussions in this province and that stage is not a flat one. It’s more like a step ladder where the government is perched firmly on the top while others cling to the steps, a position that the province has not been in at any other time in its history.

Companies like FPI now know that it does them absolutely no good to scratch and claw, make demands or fight because once the Williams government has taken a position, either rightly or wrongly, it simply won’t back down. The end result of this attitude shift, in the case of FPI, is the company’s quiet agreement to let government make the final decision on which of two acceptable bidders will actually win the right of purchase the company.

There has definitely been a paradigm shift in this province. No longer is our government negotiating from a position of weakness. The days of entering a negotiation with hat in hand are gone. They may return with a change in leadership but one can always hope that the public will recognize the benefits inherent in holding a strong position and not allow future leaders to bow and scrape at the feet of others in the hope of winning a few crumbs from the table. Time will tell.

There are those in the province who have come down on both sides of the debate over whether Williams’ tactics are effective or not. Some think he’s fighting the good fight and should continue to take government and big business out behind the wood shed for a tanning every now and then. Others believe his often abrasive approach has done far more harm than good when it comes to attracting business and federal largesse. I see pros and cons on both sides. The reality is that business can and does adapt to its environment. As long as the rules are clearly spelled out, something that needs to be done here as soon as possible, no matter what those rule are, business will continue to grow and prosper and with any luck so will the people.

No matter which side of the debate you come down on one thing is clear. The province is a lot more interesting with Williams in office than it was without him. There is an ancient saying that goes, "May you live in interesting times." The only question remaining is whether this is a blessing or a curse.

7 comments:

Anonymous said...

You make a good point. I don't personally agree with some of william's tactics but I have to admit that at least companies like FPI are behaving a little differently lately. That's a good sign at least.

Mike Kehoe said...

The apparent willingness of FPI to acquiesce to the wishes of the Provincial Government is just that. Apparent. It’s the back room lobbying from friends of government lobbyists that will determine whether FPI gets its wishes.

Timing in politics as in life is everything. Williams’s success in the Atlantic Accord renegotiations is directly attributable to the existence of a minority government in Ottawa and his ability to put the screws to those in weakened positions. It is a tribute to lawyerly skills developed no doubt over the years in all those personal injury lawsuits. Wherever they came from they were what the Province needed at that time.

It is unfortunate that during those negotiations with Ottawa Williams failed in stopping the Feds from having the equalization plank to bat us on the head with to take much of the money back.

Should a person be able to get out of a telephone booth without written directions on the door then surely they can see what has happened with the FPI situation.

It has been gobbled up by competitors with mostly out of Province interests controlling the shots. Flip artists. Buy it up. Trim it off (can you spell Harbour Breton or Marystown) and sell it off in pieces while at the same time keeping that which is of benefit to themselves. Can you spell “Marketing Arm"? How that is good for the Province remains to be seen.

You may recall this all started years ago and failed. The approach was just changed to the back door and has been successful.

Those who take over the assets have apparently already established production facility interests in other Provinces and yes China.

Cheap labor. Few if any bothersome safety laws and environmental considerations. Surely you are not seeing any admiration in that race to the bottom.

Williams failed in Stephenville. His relationship with Ottawa is in the toilet. He still has no energy plan. Still flopping about the deck on the Lower Churchill. His failures are not yet out front in the Fishery but they will be when the raiders get control of the quotas and sacrifice production activity to cheap labor outside the Province. Sullivan bailed just after Byrne flamed.

Williams has so far been a wet blanket in developing the oil resources. I agree tough love is needed when dealing with the oil companies. Williams just has to stop burning the god dam bridges because it is getting much too hard to swim back across that river.

The glow is fast coming off the Williams crown. I am sure many are now wondering whether all this “think positive", "don't worry I'll look after you all" or "trust me" replies from the Premier have any substance.

Remember the remark of Lynn Verge when standing outside the Mill in Corner Brook one cold morning when she was asked about Brian Tobin. It was, “Mr. Tobin is all fluff and no stuff".

Tobin and Williams are reported to be great friends. Nan, God rest her soul, would now interject, "show me your friends and I tell you what you are".

I deeply want to see Newfoundland and Labrador be successful. To be the principle beneficiary of its resources. I want to see Williams successful in making this happen. T be more than an acclaimed one hit wonder.

We have been screwed over far too many times. But, after a while it becomes tiring to hear more and vague promises from yet another political messiah.

It's much too early to praise or even condemn Williams. Pray for him if you are so inclined by all means. Cheer for him if it will help. Otherwise, keep his feet to the fire.

If nothing else history should teach Newfoundlanders and Labradoreans that the small print will usually say “not exactly as illustrated".

So far at least Williams is a small print Premier.

Anonymous said...

" Sue " For Prime Minister!!!!

Anonymous said...

If you are referring to SKD, I would go along with you wholeheartedly. What a brain she has, and chock a block full of knowledge. Sue for Prime Minister.

Anonymous said...

Sue is "chock full" of something else as well, in addition to her knowledge!!!! By the way where is ol' Sue. She gone into hiding or what? I kind of miss her!!!! Have you gone to sort out some things before you become our next Prime Minister, Sue??!!! Seriously tho' I do hope you're okay. You are indeed a smart woman, no one can take that from you for sure!!!

Anonymous said...

I think that she has taken her Blog down for some reason .But ,according to what I hear she is going to be bringing it back on-line .Don't know when though.Anyway ,"Sue" ,we love you and miss you something terrible.We hope that everything is going "OK" in your world,and that you come back to us soon.All our love from Onatrio .

"Sue For Prime Minister"

Anonymous said...

We Newfoundlanders and Labradorians concur as well with Sue's followers from Ontario. We also hope that Sue is doing O.K. and that her blog will be on line in the not too distant future. We miss your blog terribly Sue, as well, and we feel orphaned by the knowledge that we otherwise would have had if her blog was still on going. We go to Sue's blog site every day to see if she has had a posting.

Sue Kelland Dyer for Prime Minister!!