Thursday, April 19, 2007

He's right this time

It's no secret I've had little patience with the way federal-provincial relations have been conducted by this provincial government over the last few years.

I've never subscribed to the school of thought that says that the ideal NL politician has to come from the mould of the fighting Newfoundlander (and/or Labradorian).

You know the kind. We've had Smallwood and two Brians and now we have Premier Williams. Their defining characteristic is their willingness to drop their gloves at the slightest provocation and to fight fight fight for the people of the province.

They have been the enforcers of the province's rights and privileges in that great national hockey game of federal-provincial relations; political goons with the sharp elbows and the high stick.

But rarely are they able to do what this province really needs - score more goals and win more games.

And that applies to Premier Williams more than most past premiers. We thought we were electing a great negotiator. Instead we elected a showboating scrapper who has politically isolated himself and this province across the country while goosing local polls to stratospheric levels.

I always held the opinion that the best background and education for a NL premier would be a stint at the United Nations. I suspect that a successful diplomat with the negotiating skills to build bridges to other provinces, grease the way with the federal government and pave the way with industry to produce economic developments could accomplish great things.

A diplomat understands that your friend yesterday might be your enemy tomorrow and your ally next week. A negotiator recognizes that a great deal is one where everybody gives some, everybody gains some and everybody goes home happy.

But that just isn't possible with this premier. His enemy yesterday is his enemy today and his enemy next week and forever. And you don't need to take my word for it. I'm sure if you took aside Fabian Manning or Elizabeth Marshall or John Crosbie or any other of a number of good, faithful (Progressive) Conservatives of great integrity and skill, they might tell you the same.

And unless you can accept the idea that any set of negotiations must inevitably result in his win and your total and humiliating loss, then you had best take your business elsewhere. Again, my word for this doesn't count nearly as much as the word from any of the Hebron partners, for example.

In politics, friends come and go but enemies accumulate.

This is a long way to noting that in Premier Williams' latest salvo over the NL-fed equalisation dispute yesterday, Premier Williams called upon federal Finance Minister Jim Flaherty to resign.

It's worthwhile noting also that so far, in addition to calling on Flaherty's resignation, he's also called for the resignation of regional minister Loyola Hearn. While he hasn't yet called on the other local Conservative MP's , Fabian Manning and Norm Doyle, to resign immediately he has called on them to hang their heads in shame.

Just as well Norm Doyle is declining to run again. As for Manning, since Premier Williams has already promised a goose egg of federal Conservative MPs in the next election, Williams' threat to Manning could be considered a call for deferred involuntary resignation.

As for the federal government itself in toto, he has said that he can't wait until this government falls and another takes it's place.

So Premier Williams has called for the immediate or delayed resignation, or otherwise removal from office, of just about everyone in sight.

What's left for Premier Williams to do to get his point across?

Well, he does have the option of a cross-country speaking campaign. But he's already done that.

He could take out newspaper ads to slag the federal government and put forward the province's point of view. But he's already done that too. And of course there's always an alliance with another province in a similar spot to tag-team the feds into submission.

I think I've heard that he's already tried something like that too.

But here's the real question: after calling down the lightning, thunder and rain onto the heads of the terrible enemies of this province (that evil federal government) over and over again for political disputes of all kinds, will anybody pay attention anymore?

And, is this dispute with the federal government different in kind from the Williams-Ottawa disputes that have gone before?

I believe this dispute is different from the ones that have gone before. Previous fights with Ottawa were about money. And there will always be disputes with Ottawa about money. But this one is different because it now affects fundamental pieces of enabling legislation.

The federal government wants to unilaterally amend the 1985 Atlantic Accord.

The 1985 Atlantic Accord is not like other pieces of federal legislation. This Act was negotiated between the province and the federal government over many years to effectively transfer portions of federal jurisdiction to this province. Once agreement was reached, both levels of governments passed enabling legislation.

We forget that we don't own the oil offshore - we never did, we don't now and we never will. Ownership is in the hands of the federal government and that has been definitively confirmed by the highest provincial and federal courts.

But under this Act we are given the right to control development, to tax and otherwise manage the resource as if it were on land.

In effect, because of the nature and scope of the Atlantic Accord, it has a status above other normal pieces of legislation and falls just below the level of the constitution itself. It has the effect of a bilateral constitutional agreement.

To unilaterally amend this Act, without even informing this province, is unacceptable.

If the federal government can move forward on actions like this then it could unilaterally overturn any previously negotiated federal-provincial agreement at will and shred the fabric of prior negotiated settlements that has knitted this country together.

This is not right and Premier Williams is within his rights to make as much noise and generate as much pressure as he can to overturn this decision.

It's just too bad that Williams has no more diplomatic tools at his disposal when he, and this province, has so much need for them.

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