Beggaring our Potential
The wind just shifted in Ottawa. No one in GNL is watching the sails.
Lots of people in Newfoundland and Labrador got excited last week with news that two politicians from the province made it into the federal cabinet.
Well, let’s see.
Start with Seamus O’Regan.
Seamus may be an old friend of the Prime Minister but that didn’t stop Justin Trudeau from demoting O’Regan from natural resources to labour. At the same time, Trudeau moved former environment minister Jonathan Wilkinson into natural resources and gave environment to environmental activist Steven Guilbeault.
Three things flow out of that.
First, O’Regan’s star is clearly on the wane. His influence in Ottawa’s inner circles - never as great as some imagined - is far less today.
Second, climate change is now the centrepiece of the federal government’s policy at the expense of oil and gas. Check Guilbeault’s and Wilkinson’s media appearances over the weekend if you doubt what the cabinet change means for energy and the environment.
As The Star put it, for Wilkinson, “the goal is to show the world that Canada, as a major oil-producing country, can successfully transition to a clean economy in the coming years.” Guilbeault “has already discussed the Liberals’ promise to impose a cap on emissions from Canada’s oil and gas sector — starting in 2025 — with officials in his department.”
We’re not putting a cap on the emissions of the cement sector or the steel sector or aluminum or forestry. We’re putting a cap on oil and gas because it is 25 per cent of our emissions.
Third, both of those mean bad news for Premier Andrew Furey. His plan - his *only* plan - has been to get Ottawa to bail us out and thereby save him from making any changes to the province’s course.
Now we know that will not work. There is a huge gap between Newfoundland and Labrador on the one hand and the rest of Canada on the other. The renewable energy plan, thrown together and disconnected from everything else, will not even close the gap by an inch.
The news last week didn’t stop Furey from doubling down on his original plan last week, though. Furey told a Liberal party fundraiser that his personal relationship with the federal government “is something I think is crucial to unlocking the true potential of Newfoundland and Labrador moving forward.”
“Ottawa sees us,” Furey said in a sentence full of mangled grammar, “they hear us, and - like us – they know the potential of this place.”
If Furey had clicked his heels together and hugged Toto just a little bit tighter he could not have appeared more desperate to convince himself - let alone the rest of us - that the changes in the federal cabinet would not screw up Furey’s world.
Well, it did.
In hindsight, some events come into sharper focus now. You can see why the electricity deal looked rushed last summer, last summer. It was. The Prime Minister obviously had no interest in doing any more than the bare minimum. On their side, Furey and his brain trust had no plan other than to beg harder. So, they took whatever the federal government offered, as bad a deal as it was, because they had nothing else.
You can also see just how far off-side Seamus and Andy were from the Prime Minister when they handed out federal cash to oil companies during the pandemic. The whole thing was bad policy anyway but now we can add that it was bad strategic politics as well. The money gained the local Liberals no lasting support at home and it caused eye-rolls in the Prime Minister’s Office. It widened the gap between the federal and provincial governments.
Now let’s look at Gudie Hutchings.
The new minister gets a new department called Rural Economic Development. It’s not really new. The Prime Minister broke out all the regional economic development agencies out and handed them to other ministers from rural parts of Canada. The Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency reports to a minister from New Brunswick. The northern Ontario equivalent reports to a minister from northern Ontario. The pattern repeats with all the others, except Harjit Sajjan who represents Vancouver South but got responsibility for the rural pork agency for British Columbia.
That’s not bad for Hutchings even though it is hard to see what is left to make up a department out of. Spreading out all the pork portfolios among rural Liberals says the Kids from the 416 who have been running the Liberal Party with Justin Trudeau discovered they need the world beyond the 905 and downtown Vancouver to win another election. As one wit put it privately, they went from having an algorithm that told them to ignore the rural vote to a caucus telling them they have no future without at least some of it.
That might look good for rural Newfoundland and Labrador. And it might be good. Odds are, though, it will not be as good as it should be. After all, handing out cash is not the same as having rural Canada included in government policy the same way urban parts of the country are.
Sitting in cabinet these days is a one in a million shot, as Michael Wernick has pointed out. There are 38 million Canadians. There are 39 ministers in Justin Trudeau’s cabinet.
A cabinet seat is a big deal for the person in the seat. Sometimes, as with John Crosbie or Don Jamieson it can mean a great deal for the province, too.
But think of it this way, the last time a prime minister appointed two members of parliament from Newfoundland and Labrador, the government was 1979. John Crosbie and Jim McGrath. Two capable ministers. John Crosbie in 1979, though, was not the regional political god he became after 1984.
It’s hard not to notice that the only other time since 1949 when Newfoundland and Labrador had two ministers at the same cabinet table, the government was short-lived and inherently weak. That might be what we have now. The next election will tell.
In a broader sense, though, what we see in last week’s federal cabinet shuffle is the poverty of the political culture in Newfoundland and Labrador. One Premier after another since 2003 has built his or her pitch to voters on how well they can beg Ottawa for handouts. It’s a hugely popular strategy and voters, which is why they stick with it.
Look a bit closer. You’ll quickly see that the amounts are very similar each time. You don’t have to be a genius to see that the federal government has an amount pegged for each province. That’s all they get. If you look at it and conclude the provincial leaders run a scam, you win the prize.
The problem is not in Ottawa. The problem is in Newfoundland and Labrador. Our political vision has now reduced down to the kind of learned incompetence embodied in the speeches of Premiers from Williams to Furey. Last week’s version was just the most naked. Don’t blame the Premiers alone for the lack of leadership. They just mirror the view of the local opinion leaders. We cannot fix our own problems, they say. We cannot make our own future. We must have someone else do it.
One day, we longed for a time when we did not get a dollar in federal money.
One day, we dreamed of a time when have not would be no more.
These days, our leaders tell us that Ottawa sees us. They hear us.
They hear us, alright.
They hear us begging.
We should - like them - see there is limitless potential in people who look after themselves.
We should - like them - see there is no potential in place of beggars.