Hanging up the gloves

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

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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