Saturday, September 13, 2008

The wisdom of Rex

Danny boy has gone too far 

It's too bad Loyola Hearn, who was the Newfoundland minister in the Harper government, is not running again. After a long career in politics, he has decided to leave the game. 

Mr. Hearn is a very decent man, a product of the great coastal stretch outside St. John's we call the Southern Shore. He is an "outport" man, just as Danny Williams is a "townie." The health of Newfoundland has always, by some peculiar chemistry, depended on a dynamic equilibrium of its outport and townie components. 

Today, after the collapse of the cod fishery and with the near co-incidental explosion of offshore oil, the outport dimension of Newfoundland is almost in ruins, while St. John's and its suburbs are rich and active as never before. There are two Newfoundlands. 

The capital city and environs are in a fever of development, while vast stretches of coastal communities are inert and underpopulated, mere phantoms of what once they were. 

Mr. Hearn's retirement deprives Newfoundland politics of a necessary voice, one suited by temperament and background to speak on the overwhelming subject of the accelerating extinction of Newfoundland's quintessential outport heritage. 

This is not the only unhealthy imbalance in the province. There are 48 seats in the House of Assembly, and Mr. Williams owns 44 of them. The Liberals, with three, are the rump of a rump, and the NDP, with one, is a vapour. The numbers tell it: Mr. Williams is king of the Rock, the most powerful politician since Joey Smallwood. 

Newfoundland politics has shrunk to oil and Danny Williams. 

There are only two ways of doing politics now: Mr. Williams's way, or no way at all. Those who cross him, in what he sees as "Newfoundland's interests," are given short shrift, and none too subtly derided as working against Newfoundland. This was a Smallwood turn, and the least attractive aspect of his quite mixed political qualities. 

In his last and bitter days, he turned Newfoundland politics into a one-man show incarnate. 

That's why it was so very unfortunate that when Mr. Hearn - who, while he may not be as good a politician as Mr. Williams, is at least as honourable a Newfoundlander - said he was retiring, Mr. Williams issued this statement: "The one thing that my cabinet ministers have done throughout is stood up for their constituents, for the electorate and the people they were elected to represent and they have done that. 
And it's unfortunate in the last few years that Loyola hasn't done the same thing. "Oh, cut it out. This "standing up for Newfoundland" palaver is best administered in small doses, if at all. And it never fits the mouth of the person doing the "standing up." Furthermore, a difference of opinion, a clash of party interests, should never be categorized as a clash of patriotism. There is a jingoism of small places as well as of large. And Newfoundland is more susceptible to it than most. Newfoundlanders are ferociously fond of Newfoundland, but that very affection can play havoc with our judgment and our politics. 

The idea that Mr. Hearn, because he disagreed with Mr. Williams, acted with less than honourable intent toward Newfoundland is ludicrous. 

Mr. Williams, in fact, is a much better man than his own statement would have you believe. 

And now that the federal election is on, Mr. Williams has thrown himself with gale force into the campaign. He sent an e-mail to his entire caucus to determine whether they were on-side in his campaign against "Steve." And out of the 44, there was only one spine. It belongs to Elizabeth Marshall, who earlier - this is the distilled version - quit her cabinet job because she wasn't going to put up with the Premier running it for her. Only Ms. Marshall didn't respond with the ovine bleat, Yes, sir, yes sir, three bags full. The others signed on. 

It's not Mr. Williams's quarrel with Stephen Harper that's at question. It's hauling into that quarrel all the rhetoric of "disloyalty" to Newfoundland, stirring the jingoistic fevers, and characterizing those on the other side as unworthy. Newfoundlanders have been lucky in past decades that, when we had strong premiers, we had strong ministers in Ottawa. 

Danny Williams has reached such supremacy, however, that he has effectively become the only voice in Newfoundland politics. Mr. Hearn is gone. John Crosbie is in honorific heaven. And now there's only Danny. That's bad for us. It's bad for him, too, should he care to think about it. 

He should look over history's shoulder and take in what happened to Joey Smallwood, a great premier who subtracted from his own legacy by succumbing to the vanity of power, the great corrosive self-flattery of believing that being in charge is the same thing as always being right.

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