Thursday, January 11, 2007

Premier Williams: different in kind

John Crosbie has expressed his views on the tactics taken by Premier Williams in a column published in Atlantic Business Magazine and reinforced in an interview on CBC this morning. He says that the tactics of Premier Williams are the greatest threat to Canadian federalism.

This is not the first time Crosbie has expressed a variation of these views on the inability of our provincial leaders to make meaningful headway with the federal government.

I saw a panel discussion some time ago in which Mr. Crosbie participated. He made the observation that a consistent failure of the province in dealing with the federal government was the province's inability to make a good case for what it wanted. Too often, the argument was based on a simple "we want it" or "we deserve it" or "we are owed it". Rarely was there a substantial case based on merit. His position was that the province needed to get much better at negotiating with the federal government.

Crosbie expands on that theme with the latest salvo and makes an even starker point. While he's supportive of the province getting everything it should, he's concerned that Williams so poisons the atmosphere in any set of negotiations he conducts (oil companies, feds, other provinces) that he permanently damages relationships.

Why does that matter? It matters because one important basis of Canadian federalism, as Crosbie points out, is an environment in which ongoing set of negotiations between provinces and the federal government are carried out. While the public hears about the big shows, equalisation for example, a quick look at the long list of provincial media releases shows many many sets of federal-provincial initiatives, deals and programs. There are always federal-provincial negotiations going on in any number of areas at any given time.

So when that system of provincial-federal give and take breaks down and is replaced by a series of immovable ultimatums, problems set in. The smooth operation of the country starts to grind to a halt.

From some, Bill Rowe comes to mind, come excuses that this Premier is really no different than others and that these conflicts are no different from the ones which have gone before. God knows that the Peckford-Trudeau and the Wells-Mulroney relationship's could be dismal at times.

But Crosbie argues that, in this case, the current relationships is not a difference of degree from what happened before but is fundamentally different in kind.

When you listen to Premier Williams and how he justifies his actions, he often falls back to his 30 year successful legal career as his model. It's worth noting that he was a particular kind of lawyer - a very aggressive personal liability lawyer fighting for the rights of his victim-clients.

And much of his tactics do seem drawn from that professional experience. But is it an appropriate experience in which to base government tactics?

Consider this: any lawyer you hire will, or should, zealously defend or fight for every detail to maximise benefit to you. And that's what Premier Williams does; he clearly sees himself as the personal liability lawyer for the entire province fighting on every point and giving away nothing.

But in the legal world there are governors and limitations in how far one can push and there are mechanisms for dispute resolution because disputes can't go on indefinitely.

Then there are rogue lawyers. These are practitioners who feel free to be as antagonistic and extreme in their positions as they can possibly be. They justify their actions with the knowledge that an outside force (ie. a judge) will impose a settlement in the end. That relieves the practitioner of the responsibility to be responsible and reasonable.

In federal-provincial or provincial-oil negotiations, there is no such outside force to ultimately impose a settlement; settlement comes out of the good judgement of the parties involved.

A second governor on legal negotiating behavior is the client. At some point a client, because the matter has dragged out long enough or the deal on the table is satisfactory or because the money is running out, will instruct his lawyer to wind it up and settle. In this case the client is the people of the province.

But with stratospheric approval levels in every poll since the last election, we have been telling our lawyer to push every issue right to their limit; we are egging him on to our long-term detriment. There is every expectation that as long as numbers are high, Premier Williams will fight on to the limit on every front, every time .

The province, the government and the people, is caught is a vicious circle: Premier Williams fights on because his numbers are high which pushes his numbers even higher so he fights harder.

It is that quality which makes Premier Williams, and his actions, different in kind from what has preceded.

It's anybody's guess how it will all end.

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