Thursday, April 05, 2007

Danny Williams: Losing his balance

There's a delicate balancing act that every NL politician must master in putting their position forward, especially, but not exclusively, to a national audience.

On one hand they need to be strong, clear, articulate. They also need to go farther than, say the Premier of Ontario, in order to overcome the obvious political disadvantages of coming from a relatively small province on the geographic margins of the country.

You need other qualities to compensate.

John Crosbie is probably the best example of a NL politician being successful on the national stage. No one doubted his smarts, skills and integrity.

But that wasn't enough to push his agenda forward. He also had to be witty, colourful and grab public attention in the way few politicians ever do.

Still, he never fell into the trap of becoming a caricature of the grasping, pork-barreling local pol-made-good even when he launched his internal war, on behalf of his province, within the Mulroney administration for federal investment in Hibernia.

People called him wrong and misguided but there was always underlying respect for him. In that delicate balance, few ever matched Crosbie's political gymnastic skill.

Then there is the current national public reaction to Premier Williams latest crusade. Here is a small sample of today's editorial coverage.

From the Globe and Mail
With his glib tongue and fast temper, Danny Williams has never been known for his diplomacy. But the Newfoundland and Labrador Premier has run amok over the past two weeks with his inflammatory complaints about how much his province will receive in transfer payments in the recent federal budget. Newfoundland has been "shafted," he declared.
. . .
Mr. Williams has long been anxious to obtain the best deal for his province in everything. But now he has become careless, because Canadians in other provinces are figuring out just how much he is pocketing. They should stand with Mr. Harper in his fight.
From the Windsor Star:
Governments at all levels and of all stripes already use tax dollars to fund advertising for policies that are nothing more than thinly disguised partisan ads. Spending even more tax dollars on advertising in a dispute that could better be waged with press releases and opinion articles in newspapers represents an extravagance governments in these lean times can ill afford.

If Williams and Harper can't start acting like adults, voters should think about cutting off their allowance.
From the Edmonton Journal
Of course, none of the substance of this is remarkable. Williams is indeed playing fast and loose with the facts on equalization, and the Conservatives' recent advertising assaults on the Liberals are no different from salvos fired in the other direction during past elections.
From the National Post
If Danny Williams, the Newfoundland and Labrador Premier, were trailing in the polls, his latest hysterical attacks on Prime Minister Stephen Harper could be explained away as mere electioneering. But his provincial Conservatives are so popular -- polls measure his support as being as high as 70% -- that their re-election is all but assured in this fall's elections. So there must be some other reason for his demagogic rantings and threats to deliver Mr. Harper "a big goose egg" of seats in Newfoundland in the next federal campaign. We suspect his theatrical fury is cover for his own recent disastrous mismanagement of his province's energy industry.
. . .
At his best, Mr. Williams is a charmer and a visionary. He seems genuinely committed to getting his province off the federal dole -- eventually. But at his worst -- such as when he is storming out of premiers' conferences and flying home to take down the Canadian flag from Newfoundland's House of Assembly --Mr. Williams' is a juvenile showman whose antics serve to cast his province as Canada's pouting brat. Newfoundland and Labrador deserves better.
It looks like Premier Williams' very public campaign against Canada's New Government has generated little sympathy for this province nationally. In fact, in many corners it's a wash at best.

Even worse, Premier Williams has squandered his national political capital and respect in a Quixotic attempt to take down a national government on an issue for which there is little natural sympathy for his position.

Premier Williams may not want to link his prior decisions on expenditures or policy, on potential offshore projects for example, but others do want to and they do. And he has no answer for that other than dissembling that he's making progress and he hopes for better in the future.

The problem with those who lose their balance is they are often in denial about it until they hit the ground. It's not falling that's hard, it's the stopping. There's an old saw about the guy who fell off the ten-story building. As he fell, people near the windows heard him say as he plummeted by, "So far so good."

Premier Williams is not the best judge of how this national campaign is going - the national audience is. At best the national audience is clearly hearing, "So far so good" and at worse he's already hit the ground.

The local audience is mixed but still overwhelmingly in the Premier's favour. But a lot of that support has been based on pure emotional response to the resonant message of "we are being shafted." Ultimately that message needs solid information and evidence as the foundation of the campaign otherwise that energy just dissipates.

Both the province and the federal government have avoided being pinned down on the equalization numbers preferring qualitative descriptions like "shafted" and "blessed".

But now thanks to Wade Locke of MUN, we have a much clearer idea of what the fight is over - the difference between $24.1 billion or $28.6 billion on a program which is already an improvement of $6 billion over what we were receiving before.

We'll see next week if, on this issue, the people of the province judge the program as a shaft or a blessing; the national audience have already rendered their decision.

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