Tuesday, January 02, 2007

History: doomed to repeat it

If there was ever a cautionary tale in public policy, public statements, politics and negotiation, it's this one on VOCM.

While Premier Williams continues with the "if they don't meet our terms, Hebron will not happen" rhetoric, it's worthwhile looking back at for the historical parallels.

I can think of three.

The most obvious one was the Tobin's brilliant stratagem during the Voisey's Bay negotiations where he fell into the trap, as he often did, of talking way ahead of his position by uttering the immortal words "not one teaspoon". From that time on he left himself no where to go and had to let the deal pass him by.

So instead of getting the credit for developing one of the most lucrative mining resources ever found in the province to the benefit of the people of this province, he was left to hightail it out of here in search of greener pastures leaving the successful negotiation of the project to his successor.

The second notable example that springs to mind was the electric moment in the 1988 presidential debate between George Bush Sr. and Micheal Dukakis.

After spending the previous few months bashing Dukakis as the tax-and-spend governor of "Taxachusetts", Bush looked straight into the camera and capped his campaign theme by uttering those immortal words "Read my lips; No new taxes." The crowd loved it and he swept into the White House.

Only a few years later economic circumstances forced him to actually raise taxes for the good of the US economy and budget. It was a humiliating climb-down that, in part, cost him his reflection in 1992 paving the way for eight years of Bill Clinton.

Finally, and back to to local scene, there was the oil development policy of Brian Peckford through the 1980's which was focused on conflict, political and legal, causing a boom-bust cycle in the provincial economy, especially in and around St. John's. Sound familair?

In the end he never achieved his goal of exclusive jurisdiction over the off-shore. In fact, he merely crystallized the issue by proving through the courts that not only did the province not own the resource, we never did and never will.

The fact that the issue was eventually resolved through the Atlantic Accord meant not only a humiliating climb-down for Peckford, his pointless and ultimately counter-productive conflict over so many years delayed the eventual oil projects resulting in real opportunity cost to the province.

The bright side was that Peckford was strong enough to take that hit although he did resigned in exhaustion shortly afterwards.

Now we see yet another politician claiming victory amidst the wreckage. While Williams continues to carry on about Hebron as if it matters, there's no one left on the other side to talk to. The negotiating team has been disbanded leaving only a skeleton crew, the project development personnel have been dispatched around the world and the companies have let this province drift down the priority queue.

There are common lessons in all these different cases. The first is the danger of political and personal hubris. It's fine to stake a position based on pride but that makes pride the cost of modifying that position. And when a politician's pride is at stake, look out; it's a perfect storm of sacrificing the common good in favour of maintaining personal standing.

Second, it provides a clear case of that old US Senate saw of making the perfect the enemy of the good. We live in a world where where we can't always get everything we want all the time and most people learn that lesson around grade three. It's axiomatic that in a deal, everybody gets a bit when everybody gives a bit. We should have long-ago learned our lesson of the resentment and baggage that comes from one-sided deals

Finally there's the lesson of being moderate and responsible in public comments no matter if you are in office, running for office, in government or in opposition. Hasty statements leads you to policy dead-ends that may be hard to climb down from.

Welcome to the new year, same as the old year.

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