When it comes to minding business, the future of the province is the business of every person who has something to contribute.
In this column published today in the Globe and Mail, Simpson demonstrates to his employer the value of putting him on the road.
Newfoundland goes for the 'trust me' approach
JEFFREY SIMPSON, June 23, 2007
ST. JOHN'S -- 'Trust my judgment," said Newfoundland Premier Danny Williams this week. Apparently, an overwhelming majority of Newfoundlanders do.
With an election this October - fixed dates are now the law - Mr. Williams' party might capture close to every seat in the 48-member House of Assembly.
Not since the heyday of premier Joey Smallwood, who won six crushing victories after Newfoundland joined Confederation in 1949, has any political figure so dominated the province's politics.
Just as in Mr. Smallwood's day, when the premier demanded and received absolute loyalty, no one dares cross Mr. Williams publicly. In a small province with big ears, even private criticism gets back to the Premier. Since the government is involved in just about everything in Newfoundland, fear of Mr. Williams's legendary capacity for retribution has a lot of people careful of what they say.
Mr. Williams's modus operandi is simple: You're with me or you're not. Black or white; friend or foe. Adversaries abound, and they must be brought to heel or, as he said this week, "told to mind their own business."
The mentality both reflects and accentuates part of Newfoundland's political culture, in which the province is seen to have been held down by outside forces that prevented it from achieving its full potential.
The list of outside forces is long: fish merchants in Britain and St. John's, the perfidious British government that manipulated Newfoundland into Canada, Quebec (for the iniquitous Upper Churchill Falls hydro development), Central Canada, foreign fishing fleets, business interests (especially oil companies) and always, always the federal government.
A standard in Mr. Williams's many public utterances explains best his popularity, "We are fed up with giveaways and bad deals." To Newfoundlanders, their history has been potted with "giveaways and bad deals" in which other interests always did them in. How else to explain the gap between Newfoundland's relatively poor economic position and what its citizens have always believed should have been a brighter future?
There is plenty of myth and romanticism in this interpretation, but there is truth, too.
The Upper Churchill Falls project turned out disastrously for Newfoundland. True, Quebec took a risk at a time when energy prices were low, but when prices jumped, Quebec grabbed all the additional money in a 65-year deal and refused to reconsider.
Every drop of water that spins the turbines in Labrador reminds Newfoundlanders of their loss. They remember, too, that Ottawa refused to pressure Quebec to allow Newfoundland's hydro to pass through the province.
That one deal gone horribly wrong still colours public policy in Newfoundland. The memory and the reality of that deal make it harder for the province to do any deal, since the fear of a repeat remains so prevalent. That's why Mr. Williams's assurance, as a successful businessman, that he will never allow a "giveaway or a bad deal" allows Newfoundlanders to "trust" him almost to the point of messianic fervour.
There was also the collapse of the cod fishery, which is blamed exclusively on foreign overfishing and federal mismanagement.
Whatever the tangled interpretation of the cod fishery's collapse, and the history is tangled, it has come down today in the minds of most Newfoundlanders, and in Mr. Williams's litany, as Ottawa's fault, pure and simple.
When Mr. Williams steamrollered former prime minister Paul Martin to secure a new equalization deal, Newfoundlanders cheered him on. Today, opinion is as close to being unanimous as you will find in a democracy that Prime Minister Stephen Harper "screwed" (that is the frequently used word) Newfoundland, and that his Conservative MPs "betrayed" the province by putting a cap on equalization payments and reneging on a commitment not to include non-renewable resources in the equalization formula.
The oil companies, too, figured in Mr. Williams's pantheon of forces keeping Newfoundland from its potential. He thinks they got too sweet a deal in the first three projects, and he wants a much better one for the province in any future development.
That's why he made new demands on the consortium that was ready to proceed with the next project, Hebron - demands the consortium refused. He wants Newfoundland to have an equity stake in new projects as a window for the province on the industry and as a potentially lucrative investment. It's a bold, defensible approach used extensively around the world (Norway, for example), although not elsewhere in North America, Britain or Australia.
Thus far, Mr. Williams has little concrete to show for his approach. The province still lacks a natural gas regime, and a long-promised energy policy paper remains unpublished (although promised before the election). Drilling activity remains feeble.
Relations with Ottawa are in a deep freeze. Even civil servants aren't talking. Other provincial governments, too, have been put off by his style and conduct. The Lower Churchill hydro project remains a dream, although a lot of work is going into studying options, including ones that would completely cut out transmitting power through Quebec, a sort of psychological payback for that "giveaway" of the Upper Churchill.
The "trust me" approach hasn't produced much yet, except a knockout against Mr. Martin. But it has produced a profound political response in Newfoundland, of a kind not seen since Joey ruled the province.