Hanging up the gloves

WELLS: Danny Williams’s accomplishments and his resentments were two sides of a coin

by Paul Wells

Hanging up the gloves

Williams announced his retirement in St. John’s; Williams and Harper clashed regularly over the years | Paul Daly/Andrew Vaughan/CP

When his time came to bid the people of Newfoundland and Labrador farewell as their ninth premier, Danny Williams stood in the lobby of the Confederation Building in St. John’s and rattled off the very long list of things he has accomplished for “this bloody awesome province.”

It was a tale of renewed prosperity, fuelled by resource wealth and capped only a week earlier by a $6.2-billion hydro deal for the Lower Churchill River. “If you stand outside and breathe in the air you know you are breathing in the smell of success—the success of us being a ‘have’ province,” he said.

But somewhere in the middle of that river of thanks and congratulations for himself and his collaborators, the 60-year-old Progressive Conservative mentioned another speech, very different in tone, that he delivered three weeks earlier. That speech, at the annual Premier’s Dinner fundraiser, was designed to get some darker stuff off his chest before the upbeat farewell, he said. This suggests the two addresses were conceived, and should be considered, as a package. The yin and yang of the most successful provincial politician of his era.

The Premier’s Dinner speech was a harangue delivered against Williams’s tormentors in the House of Assembly and the press gallery. A complete recording is available online, and what is striking about it is both the length of the tirade and the genuinely hurt, at times almost tearful, tone of it. There was a proximate cause: a former journalist named Craig Westcott had sent Williams’s office a snide email questioning his sanity and hygiene. His own grandchildren were asking about it, Williams said, voice quavering. He neglected to mention his office had released the email on its own initiative, a year after it was sent and only after Westcott became the opposition Liberal spokesman.

But Williams broadened his complaining. Some called him a scrapper? Look who he was up against. “I took on two prime ministers who between them were going to take $13.5 billion away from the people of Newfoundland and Labrador.” The reference was to Paul Martin and Stephen Harper, who were tempted to let equalization payments decline as resource wealth poured in. Williams bloodied both their noses for it, and won a series of massively lucrative concessions. But what sticks in his mind, he said, was that “I was classed as a bully by the likes of the Globe and Mail.”

“It really grates them that this little colony down on the East Coast could possibly be leading the country,” he said bitterly. Saskatchewan’s Brad Wall was called a “hero” for blocking the sale of Potash Corp. to foreign hands. Williams said he got called another name that starts with “h” and ends with “o”: Hugo, as in Chávez, the Venezuelan oil megalomaniac. “That’s the kind of thing that happens,” he lamented. “We’ve been shafted again and again. The federal government and Quebec have skinned us alive on the Upper Churchill,” where the legendary premier Joey Smallwood locked in decades’ worth of payments from Quebec at rates that were below market value even in 1969.

He said he and his staff spent “half our time” finding and seeking to correct slights in the newspapers before telling his audience not to do the same: “Don’t read that bulls–t that you see in the Globe and Mail or the National Post, because it’s just not worth even talking about.”

But talk about it he did. And fight he did. Danny Williams’s resentments and his accomplishments were two sides of a coin. “Nationally he might seem pugilistic beyond belief, but you can’t argue that he was effective,” said Dean MacDonald, a close friend of Williams’s who ran Cable Atlantic for him before the future politician sold the company to Rogers for over $200 million in 2000.

“When you go into the job and you don’t need the cheque and you don’t care, when you can go to a negotiating table and say ‘I don’t give a f–k,’ it’s effective.”

MacDonald said most politicians prefer to avoid a fight. Williams was wired the other way. “When you’re in a battle with Danny he doesn’t mind slugging out fist for fist, and being a loser—as long as you know he was in a fight.”

Brian Tobin, the two-term former premier, said from Montreal that Williams’s fighting instinct was key to his success. “You’ve got to recognize that, whether it’s Brad Wall in Saskatchewan or whoever it is, any time a provincial leader is seen as being a fighter for fundamental causes, they’re going to be seen as a champion for their province.”

Tobin said Williams is almost the only politician in Canada, federal or provincial, who has managed not only to stand up to Stephen Harper but to bloody his nose. His active campaigning denied every Newfoundland and Labrador seat to the Conservatives in the 2008 election, after Harper failed to deliver on an election promise to exclude resource revenues from the equalization formula.
His internal fights, well away from the national spotlight, were less successful. “If he could turn his energies and negotiating styles on outsiders, people would rally to support him,” Alex Marland, a political science professor at Memorial University, said. “If he started turning his negotiating style on Newfoundlanders, organized labour would suddenly organize against him. And that would fracture his support. He was very good at steering the public attention toward outsiders.”

Very good indeed. Unemployment in the province stands at 13 per cent, the highest in the country. In November, 13 medical specialists announced they were quitting en masse to protest their workloads and compensation. Williams told his farewell news conference he is proud to meet Newfoundlanders on the Mainland who are proud of where they’re from. But they still leave.
And yet no Mainlander can say a word against Williams without getting told off by a Newfoundlander. “Students have been telling me, ‘I was driving in the car and I heard the news and my mom burst into tears,’ ” Marland said. “I mean, a custodian was walking down the hallway earlier with his head down saying, ‘It’s a sad day for Newfoundland, by!’ ”

The story of Williams’s tenure as premier is essentially the tale of a man who fought to hang on to long-standing advantages for the province while new wealth was coming online. When he was elected in 2003, the Hibernia oil development had been online for six years and Terra Nova for one. White Rose was two years from starting up. Oil and gas revenues ramped upward, more or less steadily, for his whole time as premier. In 2009-10, the province collected $1.8 billion in offshore oil revenues, for a population of only half a million.

But Newfoundland and Labrador has long collected equalization payments. As resource revenues went up, equalization went down. It felt like running up a down escalator. Paul Martin, battered by the Conservatives in 2004, acceded to Williams’s demand to stop the escalator. There followed a long year of confrontation for both men. Williams walked out of federal-provincial meetings. He took down all the Canadian flags in the provincial legislature. Bill Rowe, who was Williams’s special envoy to Ottawa, has a new book out in which he says Williams and Martin nearly came to blows.

Harper was the next national leader to stick his finger into the Williams trap. He promised an even better resource exemption and then, being Stephen Harper, decided after the election he hadn’t made the promise Williams remembered. Williams just about tore the new Prime Minister’s head off. An “Anybody But Conservative” campaign shut Harper’s candidates out of the province on election night. Mainlanders who confidently predicted Harper would find a way to make Williams hurt were surprised when it never happened.

“I have found that the two of them are incredibly similar for a long period of time,” Marland said. “The very things that Danny Williams will critique Stephen Harper about, particularly the whipping, making sure that everybody has to vote the same way—that’s exactly the kind of thing that Danny Williams does. Danny Williams is a huge force for centralization in his office.”

Like many effective leaders, he was also a bit of a one-man show. Effectively staffed, mind you: Williams is a former Rhodes Scholar who was good at sweet-talking or shaming some of the best minds in the province to work with him. But it’s not at all clear who is going to succeed him. Deputy Premier Kathy Dunderdale succeeds him as the province’s first female head of government, but it is not clear who can galvanize the province the way he did. Tobin’s Liberals fell upon one another like dogs when he left in 2002; Roger Grimes, who barely escaped the leadership contest with his skin, didn’t last long against Williams. It is anybody’s guess whether the post-Williams Conservatives can escape that fate.

“I think there’s a general ‘oh man, now what do we get,’ ” MacDonald said. Newfoundlanders “are thinking, ‘we’re not going to get someone this strong, this compassionate.’ You might not have liked his message but you never ever doubted where his heart was. We had a good guy there, make no doubts about that, this guy, he lived it, breathed it, slept it. True Newf through and through. Jesus he’s good.”

With Tom Henheffer




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Hanging up the gloves

  1. It is interesting how effective he could be because he didn't 'need' the job, that this created the independence or appearance of independence needed to tell opponents to "I don't give a F-K". In this province we admire what Danny was able to accomplish by standing up to various 'forces'. There is something to be said for politicians who don't seem overly concerned with the electoral outcome of each and every decision, but instead pursue what they believe is in the public interest. My favorite politicians of the last 20 years all seem to fall under that heading. In Nova Scotia the last one we had was Dr Hamm, sure he would shoot himself in the foot politically, often, but is the same guy who got an 800 million dollar cheque from Ottawa and put every dime on the provincial debt. Like Danny, sadly missed.

    • Not to diminish William's political skills, but getting $$ out of the feds (same for Hamm and his $800 mil too) is hardly an electorally risky thing to do.

      • Perhaps you should be premier of your province as you seemed to have nailed on the head what every premier in the country wants, yet cannot achieve what DW did…A financial handout and an admittance of wrongdoing by past decisions. Your brilliance is noteworthy.

    • "not concerned with electoral outcome of each and every decision"…that is all he was concerned with…his position in the polls drove his every move!

  2. While their may be superficial similarities in their styles, the contrasts between the agendas of Williams and Harper are dramatic.

  3. Didn't Harper's budget PASS ?

    Might be worth a mention that Harper actually won that fight in which his nose was bloodied.

    Helpful Hint To Wells CATS!

  4. "but you can't argue that he was effective”

    What a great quote.

  5. “If you stand outside and breathe in the air you know you are breathing in the smell of success—the success of us being a ‘have' province,” he said.

    …all the while cashing the cheques like a have-not province. A lottery winner scrapping to keep the welfare cheques a-coming. What a country.

    • The Prime Ministers promised the money. Danny was just holding them to their word. You got a problem with our "welfare cheques"? Go talk to Ottawa. Don't pretend that your premier – or you, for that matter – wouldn't take, and fight for, money that was promised to you in return for your constituents' votes.

      • If Danny Williams had not been successful in having the offshore oil revenues excluded from the equalization calculations, then NL would STILL be receiving equalization payments today … an endless cycle. The province had to get off the equalization treadmill. Because of Williams' tenacious approach, the province no longer receives equalization.

      • Don't pretend that your premier – or you, for that matter – wouldn't take, and fight for, money that was promised to you in return for your constituents' votes.

        Other people's money as a bribe for your votes. Yep. What a country.

        • Sure, you could frame it as a "bribe." Or, you could frame it as a statement of intention to change equalization policy such that revenue is not deducted from equalization payments, thus more quickly "equalizing" the province, thus sooner putting a stop to all equalization payments.

          Fiscal philosophy that stands within reason as an enticement for your votes. Yep. What a country.

          • intention to change equalization policy such that revenue is not deducted from equalization payments, thus more quickly "equalizing" the province, thus sooner putting a stop to all equalization payments.

            Give us the money, because we are sick and tired of taking your money. The more you pay now, the less we'll whine about later — trust us.

            Yep. What a country.

          • Again, equalization is federal policy. Got a problem with it? Talk to Ottawa.

            Again, if positions were reversed, you would fight for the money federal policy guaranteed you. Don't pretend you wouldn't.

          • Got a problem with it? Talk to Ottawa.

            Just wondering: you did notice I was resigned to sigh "What a country" in each comment, right? Get it? Country?

          • And when we do talk to Ottawa, you'll scream at Ottawa then, correct?

    • If it got the province of Newfoundland and Labrador off equalization in the long run, then it's been worth it.
      Stop screaming over a blasted penny when it will save you a dime.

  6. As a general rule, I find that anyone who is as steeped in resentment and bitterness and Danny Williams, and who constantly cites resentments, tormentors, etc., is basically personality disordered.

    And to those people who say "well, it got results", I would point out that that's pretty damn similar to the "Well at least he made the trains run on time" argument. The ends don't always justify the means. There's no excuse for being dyspeptic, rude and embittered all the time — especially when you're a multimillionaire, as DW is.

    • When Danny Williams came to power, Newfoundland was up a creek and needed to paddle like an SOB. If you think we were going to see Danny fight for us and then say, "Well, he certainly got us our money, but he yells a little too much; let's vote him out," you are delusional.

      My point is: you don't vote for a perfect leader; you vote for the one who's gonna give you what you need. Once you have what you need, you'll vote for another one, the one who has what you need next. I deplore Danny's demeanour and resistance to fair criticism, but I believe he is exactly what Newfoundland needed for the last seven years. Someone who will look after our wretched state of health care is who we need next.

  7. I really don't understand how little introspection is exercised by the ROC when judging Danny Williams. Do you really believe that the things Danny said in public (re: the resentment, the tormentors) are any different than the things other premiers said only in private, for fear that it may have hurt their image or likeability? That the things Danny Williams did (i.e. take down Canadian flags, campaign against a federal party) are any different than the things other premiers would love to have done, but couldn't for fear of having federal funding cut or favours declined?

    Danny Millions was not a career politician, didn't need public life, and clearly would have thrown his arms in the air and went back to practice law at the slightest hint that the electorate was turning against him. In other words, he had nothing to lose. That is the only reason he said and did things other premiers only dream of saying and doing. If you believe other premiers wouldn't demonstrate the same disorder you allege Danny to have if given the chance, you are fooling yourself.

    • 2 things:

      1. I just don't buy your theory that Danny W was just like every other premier, the only difference being that DW was saying in public what the others "wished they could say". I just don't think the record bears that out. DW constantly bleated on and on like someone with a chronic persecution complex. It was Nixonesque in that respect. No other current or recent premier that I can think of demonstrated such a mind set, either in public or in private.

      2. Even if DW did only articulate what every other premier privately wished to say (and I don't agree with you on that), a related point is that part of being a civilized human being is not simply barfing out publicly whatever thought enters your head. You know, it's like that Jim Carry movie Liar Liar. There's a reason why I don't walk into my office every day and tell that girl with the nice breasts what I'm thinking. Think about it.

      • To take your points in reverse order:

        2. I most certainly was not offering a defence of Danny's actions. I was merely attempting to highlight the hypocrisy of criticizing one premier for saying what I posited all premiers want to say. I agree that it is uncivilized.

        1. But do you really believe that other premiers, behind closed doors, don't blame their problems on others? Opposition leaders? Federal politicians? Leadership rivals? Finicky voters? And, indeed, think any or all of those are out to get him/her? I suppose the argument ends there; if either of us could demonstrate what premiers say in private, it would no longer be private.

        To go back to your original point, I guess my facetious conclusion is this: you gotta have a personality disorder to be premier in the first place. Possibly definition.

        And you really should talk to that girl in your office with the nice breasts. I think you two would hit it off.

        • Possibly BY definition. There goes my already weak laugh-line.

          • Anyway, fair enough. I take your point.

            And if I've pushed my points a bit too hard, forgive me — I've just always had a huge problem with populist politicians, especially those who have based a large part of their appeal on slagging others. Just a thing with me. Believe me, DW is hardly the first such creature that I've had a problem with in that regard.

    • Danny certainly needed public life. It was the only think that stood any chance of satisfying his ego and insatiable desire for attention and affection. Your insinuation that because he is wealthy his motives must therefore be pure is both simplistic and vile.

      The only lens through which the man made any policy decision was "what can I say/do to make me more popular". You have every right to think that this is model behaviour for a leader. But some of us happen to disagree.

      • Indeed, I am one of those who disagree with what you seem to have plucked out of thin air. Nowhere did I say, or even insinuate, that wealth made his motives pure. They simply made his motives DIFFERENT – different, that is, from the motives of other premiers (i.e. staying in power).

        If the ROC wants to criticize Danny, they should try investigating his domestic policies; there is plenty there. But don't pretend he is any worse than any other premier in Canada, many of which also seek to satisfy their "ego and insatiable desire for attention and affection."

  8. if he wasn't so busy amalgamating all the energy resources of this province under one umbrella, extracting a business with private interests on one of the key resources deemed worthy of a NAFTA related water ownership case, removing the aforementioned umbrella companies books from legislative oversight and then arranging a deal (which he will more than likely personally benefit from) to sell what resources he had just illegally and surreptitiously grabbed from an unaware, bedazzled and trusting populace maybe he would be viewed by history as a truly great leader. what he is and will remain is a circus act with a big bank roll looking to enlarge it and make a name for himself at the same time. i predict he will go down as one of the last politicians in a western democracy to go out looking like a hero and acting like a criminal on the scale of cecil rhodes, his idol it would seem.

    • Poorly argued accusations deserve poorly argued responses. So here's one:

      You're wrong.

      • so he won't be the last then? quebec has another 'hero-type' waiting for us to praise? or maybe it'll be california that produces the last great white hope? lmao. its so sad how media addicted, money blind, apathethic sheep continue to follow the leaders of our free world while they and their ilk promote not only the past rape and pillage of the third world, but now those last pieces of our own land yet destroyed by greed. are you another one investing in mineral exploitation trips to mars? i gotta space ship for ya right here, its got super dooper booster rockets and everything. all the bells and whistles your ego-maniacal white greedy brain can imagine it could use to gratify itself.

        i don't need to make an argument to support the case that greed is currently going unchecked and what we are doing currently is not for the benefit of any future generations on this planet. its only purpose is to make the rich richer. danny is with them now (if he wasn't already) for sure.

        • "i don't need to make an argument…"

          How convenient!

    • So I take it you don't like him?

      Just kidding.

    • here here

    • He was the first to take advantage of one of the biggest loopholes present from the NAFTA negotiations.

      Most of you Upper Canadians just don't understand the initial deal from Grand Falls-Windsor – the parent company of the parent company of the parent company over a century ago were given the timber rights on the basis that a lumber mill was to be maintained. Once AbitibiBowater shuttered the mill, they attempted to keep and negotiate the timber rights as part of their bankruptcy restructuring. They were trying to sell off one of the key resources of the people of Newfoundland & Labrador while providing them nothing in terms of employment opportunity, compensation, etc.

      I think the rest of Canada is packed full of fools if you'd applaud a private company while they stuck the knife into the backs of the citizens of a province.

  9. Well – he certainly had balls. In politics, I'd like to see more balls. Read into that as you wish! ;)

    • I agree, he does!

    • Heh. Balls.

  10. i hope i'm wrong about it all though. if what recent history (and in particular that which is mostly buried by the mass media and publishers of the new regime) has taught me is anywhere close to what the truth is in this case though, i'm probably dead on.

  11. Danny Williams was not perfect and I do not stand with the thousands of other Newfoundlanders who are profoundly sad to see him go. I believe he is leaving at exactly the right time, and though our future is uncertain, I'm glad Danny isn't in it…

    …because for the last seven years there have been pros and cons to having Danny in charge. I don't need to tell you about the pros, but among the cons:
    - perpetually closed legislature
    - striking lack of transparency
    - hostility to media and to criticism
    - a healthcare system in a frightening downward spiral

    These things, sooner or later, were going to lead to a backlash against Danny. And, boy oh boy, I would not have wanted to see a Premier Danny when things started to go sour.

    A politician is useful until he//she isn't. If Danny felt he was of any more use, he would have run again next year. Thus, I greatly admire him for stepping down now.

    • that is only part of the picture. he was in the energy game before getting in. he sold out to snc-lavalin who do alot of the infrastructure and maintenance on HQ projects, amongst other things. coincidence? or just another piece of circumstantial evidence to support a case for completely reviewing all of the legislative changes and decisions that were made to support NALCOR and its subsidiaries during his tenure? it concerns me greatly that we are moving ever closer towards union with the states, and they continue to have major issues with almost every other country in the world. i can tell you i don't want into that!! and if he brought my province or country any closer to be tied to it or their future i think i have a right to be concerned. call it what you want. imagined, conspiracy, flaky…that's the reality we're talking about. as we were so recently reminded by the head spook in ottawa this is not wonderland.

  12. I am a Newf, born and raised. Though I now live in BC, I go home often. I have no use for this idiot Williams. Anyone who forces a member of his own provincial caucus to vote against a National political party, on pain of demotion or worse, is not worth the respect of anyone in a democratic society. How do I know he did this, because one of his own MLA's, a personal friend from my youth, told me so in no uncertain terms. Gangsters do that sort of thing. Danny Williams is a bully, pure and simple!

  13. The Ministry of Truth from Orwell has a home within the Williams government. This week they announced a 12 million dollar surplus is now being forecast for the year, to significant aclaim. Buried deep was the other part that total debt increased (again) this time by 489 million, i.e. half a billion on the Visa, but spare change in the pocket.
    Everything here has been surreal at that level since 2003. He fended off Exxon before finally taking the deal on the table. He opined nonsense (fixed link to Labrador) and he spent the legacy of earlier premiers, Peckford, Tobin (really!) and Grimes (more really!) His genius, and it is very much the correct word, was in communication.

    • aha. so glad to hear i'm not the only one looking more closely than the front page. hope dunderdale has it in her to stand up to big business and do the right thing for her grandchildren, as well as mine.

  14. Say what you want to say about the Williams, but he stood up to Harper and to Martin and did more than bloody their noses. He put Newfoundland and Labrador back on the map. He gave them back their self esteem and in the process stood by and made sure that the other provinces learn a simple message. Freedom is that right to be wrong, not to do wrong!

    • He gave them back their self esteem

      He most certainly didn't. Some of them never lost it.

    • Let the record reflect that Senor Chavez is quite effectively putting Venezuela back on the map, too…

  15. Long live the Republic of Newfoundland!

    • As a fellow Newfoundlander, I'm confident I don't have to remind you we never were a Republic so it cannot live a long life for it never lived to begin with. It's people like you who are willing to bastardize our TRUE heritage for some half-cocked Irish lie (not meant to be derogatory; it's just Newfoundlanders with the staunchest Irish background seem to love perpetrating the myth) that make me wonder.

      Long live the Dominion of Newfoundland – and go pick up a history book.

  16. One note for Mr. Wells on the proper spelling of slang: Don't listen to your spellcheck, b'y is a contracted form of boy. Eliminate the vowel "o", replace with an apostrophe and BAM! You got your properly spelled slang.

    "You're some b'y, Mr. Wells."

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