2016 – The Year Newfoundland Separatism Died

When you talk of separatism in Canada, most Canadians think of Quebec, but there has always been a smaller, but no less passionate, separatism sentiment in Newfoundland. (I am excluding Labrador on purpose; when someone in Labrador talks about separation, they talk about separating from Newfoundland, not from Canada). For the first fifty years or so after confederation when we were perennially the poorest and least respected province in the country, there was always a group who would argue that if we are going to be poor, we might as well be poor on our own than controlled by Canada. After the cod fishery collapsed, separatist sentiment spiked as people blamed Ottawa for mismanagement of the cod stocks, even though the federal government stepped in with a rather generous compensation program during the moratorium.

When oil and oil revenues surged a decade ago and have not finally did become no more, with the province becoming a contributor rather than a recipient of equalization, there were many who started to think that separation from Canada might be a viable. A very public battle with two successive prime ministers that lead to Danny Williams taking down the Canadian flag at the confederation building served to further inflame the small but growing separatist sentiment. Though there was no organized separatist organization, you could not sit at a bar anywhere on the island for any amount of time before you would hear people talking about how we would be better off if we were our own country. Then came 2016.

If you sit at a bar these days, you won’t hear anyone complaining about Ottawa. You will hear people arguing of whether Dwight Ball, Kathy Dunderdale, or Danny Williams is responsible for the mess we find ourselves in, but nationalists and federalists alike agree that we have made the bed we are currently lying in. You would have to spend a lot of time at a lot of bars before you’d come across someone arguing that we would be better off with Prime Minister Ball instead of Premier Ball.

Newfoundland separatism was always based more on emotion than logic. The fact is there is strength in numbers. Being part of a large, diverse country means lowers the risk of being obliterated by a downturn in a particular industry. The next time you complain about the hit that the Canadian dollar has taken in the past year, take a moment to think how the Newfoundland dollar would have fared during that same timeframe.

2016 has been a rough year; taxes are up, the economy is struggling, and a lot of people are worried about losing their jobs, but if there is a silver lining is that the threat of a viable separatist movement developing in this province has been extinguished forever. If we were to hold a referendum this summer, Commission of Government would get more votes than Responsible Government.

Voters Are More Hypocritical and Dishonest Than Politicians

Politicians get a lot of well-earned criticism for being dishonest and hypocritical. Here in Newfoundland and Labrador, we have just witnessed Liberal MHAs defend cuts to libraries that they called shameful a few years ago when the PCs made cuts of their own Meanwhile the PCs  have criticized the Liberals for not doing enough to limit patronage appointments even though they seemed to have no issue with appointing PC supporters to patronage positions while they were in power. Amid all the scorn being heaped on politicians of all stripes in the province, one MHA caused a stir last week when he suggested that everyone in the province, not just the government, shares some responsibility for the mess we are in. He is absolutely right.

Voters are more hypocritical and dishonest than any MHA. How many of the people you hear bemoaning the fact that government wasn’t more frugal with public finances were calling into open line shows a few short years ago complaining about their income tax cut? Did you ever hear a public sector worker suggest that maybe it would be more prudent to get a smaller raise and put some money into a heritage fund for a rainy day?

When governments do their public consultations, how many people do you think show up and suggest that the government should spend less money or increase taxes? And of those who do, how many actually propose spending cuts or tax increases that would affect them? Nobody who works for the government is going to suggest spending less money and anyone who suggests increasing taxes is only going to want the increases for people who make more money than them.

Since last fall, the price of oil has actually been rising steadily, and there is reason to be optimistic that in the second half of the Liberal mandate the economy and oil royalties will be strong enough that the government will actually have some money to be spent again. You might think that after seeing firsthand the pain that can result from spending too much when times are good during an oil boom that voters will be encouraging the government to be cautious about increasing spending too quickly, but you would be wrong.

If the Liberal government wants to get re-elected in 2019 they will need to spend every cent of increased oil revenues they have. After attacking the PCs for not doing enough to save for a rainy day, some in the Liberal Party might have some reservations about doing the exact same thing they accused the PCs of, particularly when they have already broken so many promises in the last campaign, but they will have no worries about a voter backlash. Voters only get upset about government hypocrisy when they are taking money away, not when they are spreading it around.

Dwight Ball’s “Read My Lips” Misstep

When George H. W. Bush was running for president in 1988 there was much debate about whether taxes would need to be raised to help reduce the growing government deficit. After his opponent Michael Dukakis acknowledged the possibility that taxes might need to be raised, Bush gave a speech where he categorically declared that he would never raise taxes and uttered the famous line “read my lips, no new taxes”. That speech helped him win the election, but is often cited as the main reason why he failed to win re-election against a young, little known governor of Arkansas. At the time, some members of the Bush team had lobbied against making such an unequivocal statement as it would severely limit his flexibility as president, but the decision was made to keep it in the speech and it was credited with helping him win the election.

In the 2015 Newfoundland and Labrador provincial election, Dwight Ball had his own “read my lips” moment when he boldly declared that he would reverse the PC’s increase in the HST, and put an exclamation point on his stance with an election photo with the words, “not on my watch”. One of his first actions upon becoming premier was to cancel the proposed increase, but only a few months later he backtracked and reinstated the increase as part of an overall gloomy budget. Needless to say much of the electorate is now irate with this broken promise.

When the first President Bush made his dubious promise not to raise taxes he was trailing in the polls to an opponent who had acknowledged that there was a possibility that taxes would need to be raised to deal with the country’s growing deficit at the time. That “read my lips” statement may have cost him his re-election, but without it he may have never become President to begin with, so even in hindsight it still probably made sense. Dwight Ball, on the other hand, did not need to make any bold promises to win the election.  

The PC Party that Mr. Ball was going up against was in disarray leading up to the election and was almost certain to lose power. The party had just revolted against its own Premier, and then when they had a leadership race all of the candidates either dropped out or were barred from running. When they had a second leadership race the person who had more votes than the other two candidates combined on the first ballot somehow lost on the second ballot. Even though the eventual winner of the PC Leadership, Paul Davis, performed surprisingly well during his brief time as leader, the consensus was that he was just fighting to reduce the size of the Liberals’ inevitable majority.

With the PC Party saddled with so much baggage, all Dwight Ball needed to say was that the PCs spent too much during the boom time and didn’t leave anything in the cupboard for when the boom ended. Voters, even those who enthusiastically supported all that spending and tax cutting, would have agreed with him and voted the Liberals into power. Had he avoided making any bold promises, he would have had the flexibility to raise taxes and lay people off while deflecting all of the blame towards the previous government.

Unfortunately for the Premier, even people who recognize that increasing taxes and cutting spending may be necessary can still justifiably attack him for breaking his election promises. Even if every decision the government makes in the next four years is the best one for the future of the province, the Liberals may find themselves the first government since confederation not to be elected to a second term because of some reckless and completely unnecessary promises made last November.

Could Donald Trump Attack Jesus and Still Win the Republican Nomination?

Perhaps the most interesting thing about Donald Trump’s rather interesting campaign for president is the way that he seems determined to do and say all of the things that you were not supposed to be able to do while running for President. One of the fundamental pillars of the Republican Party in the last half decade has been the opposition to Barack Obama’s attempt at a version of universal health care. Anyone who has not been 100% opposed to the policy has been viewed as a heretic by Republicans, yet Trump has said he is in favour of universal health care; he just doesn’t like the way that the President has done it. Though he appears to have gone too far to the left for many Republicans on health care, he has actually gone too far to the right on things like immigration, where has publicly stated that he would temporarily ban Muslims from entering the country.

As surprising as his policy positions may be, what is most surprising about Donald Trump’s campaign is how he has seemingly gone out of his way to attack some of the most venerated public figures among conservative voters, including former President George W. Bush, war hero and former Presidential candidate John McCain, and even Pope Francis. Leading up to the South Carolina primary, a state where George W. Bush was particularly popular, he accused the former President of lying about the war in Iraq and failing to prevent 9/11 and then proceeded to win that state’s primary in a landslide and knock the President’s brother Jeb out of the race.

Last summer he attacked John McCain, who was a prisoner of war for over 5 years in Vietnam, saying ““He’s not a war hero. He was a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured.” Having seen his poll numbers continue to rise among Republican voters after attacking the Republican war hero, he decided to up the ante by getting into a war of words with Pope Francis and then went on to a landslide victory in predominantly Catholic Massachusetts.

There can be little doubt that Donald Trump takes immense satisfaction in gaining support by doing things that would end the candidacies of lesser politicians and I can’t help but think that deep down he is wondering if he could take that final step and actually get away with bashing Jesus. If you try, you can almost hear him. “What kind of messiah gets taken prisoner and nailed to a cross? I like messiahs who don’t get taken prisoner”. Though he is unlikely to take that final step, based on what we have seen in the campaign so far, it is far from certain that it would prevent him from winning the Republican nomination.

US Presidential Candidates Should Study Recent NL Politics Before Dropping Out of Race

This Presidential primaries currently underway in the United States have been the most shocking and unpredictable in recent, and even distant, memory. Who would have thought that a reality TV star like Donald Trump, who advocates banning Muslims from the country, supports universal health care, and bashes the entire Bush family every chance he gets, would be the frontrunner to win the Republican nomination for President? On the Democratic side, how many people thought that Hilary Clinton would be facing a serious challenge from a 74 year old socialist from Vermont?

On the Republican side, many people worried about a Trump victory are suggesting that John Kasich, the Governor of Ohio, should exit the race so that Marco Rubio could then unite the so-called moderate vote and stop Donald Trump before it’s too late. After coming second in New Hampshire, Mr. Kasich has not done so well in the next two states to cast ballots and many people now believe that he has no chance at winning the nomination. If Bernie Sanders is unable to score another big win like he did in New Hampshire there will be increasing pressure for him to bow out of the race and let Hilary Clinton focus on the general election. But before any of the candidates drop out, they might want to take a look at some of the recent political history in Newfoundland and Labrador.

Two years ago, after Kathy Dunderdale was forced out as leader of the Progressive Conservative party, there was race between two prominent businesspeople, Bill Barrie and Frank Coleman (a third candidate was later ruled ineligible). Mr. Coleman was perceived to be backed by popular former premier Danny Williams and the party establishment, while Mr. Barrie ran an outsider campaign that put him at odds with many in the Party’s establishment. When Mr. Barrie came to feel that the cards were being stacked against him by party insiders, he withdrew from the contest in protest, leaving Frank Coleman unopposed.

Shockingly, before he had the chance to be acclaimed as leader, Mr. Coleman suddenly withdrew from the race, citing family reasons after some critical press coverage about his business dealings with the province and his views on abortion, thus leaving the Progressive Conservative leadership race completely devoid of candidates. Had Bill Barrie fought on even pretty much everyone, including himself, believed he had no chance at winning, we would have become the Premier of Newfoundland and Labrador.

Before any candidates drop out of US presidential race, they should remember that, like the Barrie/Colman contest that wasn’t, anything truly can happen in politics. There is no such thing as an inevitable candidate. Donald Trump is a perpetual scandal generator whose campaign could blow up at any moment. Hilary Clinton is still being dogged by investigations into her use of personal e-mail servers for government business. Heck, we are talking about two people pushing seventy, so it would not be that far-fetched for one of their candidacies to be derailed by an illness or some health related issue.

The 2016 presidential primaries are unlike anything we have ever seen. If there was ever a race where there would be some kind of shocking turn of events it would be this one. If I were John Kasich or Bernie Sanders, and I really believed myself to be the best candidate for President, I would keep my name on the ballot right to the bitter end.

It’s Time to Move the Super Bowl to Saturday

The NFL and its commissioner, Roger Goodell, has taken a lot of heat in recent years for the way the league has handled domestic abuse on the part of its players, what it has and has not done to protect its players, as well as a number of controversial investigations such as last year’s ball deflation fiasco with the New England Patriots. Critics often accuse the NFL and its commissioner of being arrogant, but they don’t get nearly enough criticism for the most arrogant thing the NFL does; scheduling the Super Bowl on a Sunday night.

The Super Bowl is the most watched sporting event in North America as it attracts casual and even non-fans of the NFL. Many people will tune in just to watch the commercials and the half time show. The game has become a social event as much as a sporting event, and the league is not only aware of this but along with sponsors like Anheuser-Busch, actively encourages it, but yet it insists on holding the game on Sunday night when everyone has to get up and go to work the next day. They know that every single football fan on earth would rather have it on a Saturday when everyone could spend the next day sleeping off their hangovers, but they keep it on Sunday anyway.

Living in Newfoundland, the most easterly part of North America with a time zone an hour and a half later than Eastern Standard, I suffer more than most people from the late start, but it is far worse for all the European fan base the league is trying to grow. I doubt that many German bosses will be very sympathetic to employees who are unable to come to work on Monday because they were up until 4:30am watching American football. If the league was serious about growing their global fan base they would move the game to Saturday.

Everyone would benefit from a Saturday Super Bowl. Fans would be happier, bar and restaurant owners would be happier, and now that McDonalds has all day breakfasts, the Sunday after the Super Bowl would shatter all previous records for Egg McMuffin sales. It is time for fans and media alike to start exerting pressure on the NFL to give the football fans the Super Bowl Saturday they deserve.


Your Criticism is Welcome but Please Spare Us the Condescension

After friendliness, the second most distinguishing characteristic of Newfoundlanders is their sensitivity to criticism. We haven’t forgiven the Globe and Mail for allegedly publishing some columns a couple decades ago that took a sceptical view of the federal government’s involvement in the Hibernia project. Rod Stewart went from our favourite international rock star to a pariah when he said that he didn’t wear that sealskin coat on purpose. I’ve always thought that the “everyone on the mainland is out to get us” mentality is a little overblown and we should stop being so touchy when it comes to criticism, so when I came across an article the other day in the National Post about how the solution to Atlantic Canada’s problems is for the rest of Canada to start telling us no, I really did approach it with an open mind.

This was without a doubt the single most condescending article I have ever read. It reinforced every negative stereotype of mainlanders who look at us as helpless beggars completely unable to look after ourselves without the benevolent guidance of Ottawa. It is interesting that one of the two co-authors is actually from PEI, because it shows how there really isn’t an Atlantic Canada. There is the Maritimes and there is Newfoundland and Labrador. We have more in common with Alberta than we do with New Brunswick, and people in the Maritimes can be as dismissive of this province as someone from Ontario.

It is too bad that the article was so condescending, because the authors did have some valid points to make. Our public sector is disproportionately large compared to our private sector and our government is spending more money than it takes in, but we already know that. We may not have a plan to deal with that at the moment, but our government has assured us they have a plan to come up with a plan to address that issue at some point in the not too distant future.

Any valid points made by these authors were completely overshadowed by their failure to acknowledge that Newfoundland and Labrador has not received any equalization payments in seven years while Ontario has been receiving equalization for the past six years. And since they were discussing subsidies, they probably should have at least acknowledged the huge tax breaks and subsidies that the auto sector has received in Ontario as well as the enormous economic subsidy that the province receives by having such a disproportionate number of federal government workers in Ontario. It would have also been nice if they could have made at least a passing reference to some of the high profile examples of corruption and mismanagement that has occurred in places like Quebec and Ontario in the past decade.

My point is not that people in the rest of Canada should stop writing anything critical about Newfoundland and Labrador. Criticism is good; it helps you get better. The best managed companies in the world hold all their managers accountable and expose them to constructive criticism. The key point though is that they use objective and constructive criticism. They realize that while frank criticism is healthy, condescending and insulting criticism is counterproductive. We are facing a lot of challenges in Newfoundland and Labrador these days, so feel free to offer any suggestions or criticisms you might have, but please, spare us the condescension.

Pre-Budget Consultations Are a Waste of Time

This week Dwight Ball announced that the Liberal government would be holding pre-budget consultations to solicit input on how to best address the massive deficit that Newfoundland and Labrador is currently facing. The concept of public consultations is nothing new as it has become common practice across the country as governments prepare budgets. Many cynics out there dismiss them as little more than cosmetic public relations to create an illusion that the government is actually listening to people’s concerns as they prepare the budget, but the fact is these consultations are a waste of time regardless of whether the government is sincere or not.

We just went through the most thorough and comprehensive public consultation possible; a province-wide general election. The deficit issue was well known when the election started, and every MHA spend weeks going door to door and meeting with various local groups. The leaders of the parties had televised debates in which they outlined their plans on how to deal with this challenge and then the entire adult population had the ability to cast their vote. On Election Day the people of this province decided to give the Liberals a clear mandate to guide the province through this difficult time.

In a general election, even one with low turnout like this past election, more than half of all voting age citizens cast ballots. Pre-budget consultations on the other hand attract only a miniscule percentage of the adult population. If 100 people show up to meeting in St. John’s and 90% of them said the government should spend more money in a particular area or cut money from another, what use would that be? Aside from being a tiny sample of the population, they are not randomly selected. Rather than providing valuable feedback they could be giving a false impression that their views are an accurate reflection prevailing opinion in the area, which may not be the case. These meetings are often overrepresented by people with an abundance of time on their hands. People busy with jobs and kids are far less likely to take the time to participate in such meetings.

Having just gone through a general election, I think the government should have received enough feedback to be able to start making some difficult decisions, but if they are really determined to get additional feedback they should hire a professional polling company that can reach out to a random sample of people. The polling company would be cheaper than the public consultations and if any citizen wants to share their ideas they are always free to call or write their local MHA.

Simani Deserves More Respect and Recognition

The recent passing of Ron Hynes triggered a well-deserved outpouring sadness and appreciation for one of the greatest songwriters and musicians this province has ever known. Though he wrote and performed many wonderful songs, Sonny’s Dream is widely considered his crowning achievement as it both one of the most beloved songs in Atlantic Canada and has been covered by the likes of Emmy Lou Harris among others.

The Ron Hynes coverage coincided with the start of the Christmas music season on the radio and I remember listening to the Mummer’s Song right after hearing about the importance of Sonny’s Dream and I couldn’t help but think that Simani has not gotten nearly enough recognition and appreciation. Regardless of whether you like Newfoundland folk music, there are two songs by Simani that you have undoubtedly heard many times; the Mummer’s Song and Saltwater Cowboys.

I love Sonny’s Dream, and as someone who spent a lot of time away from home it has always resonated with me, but the song in not particularly specific to Newfoundland. Relatively few Newfoundlanders have lived on a true farm or have been sailors who never come home. Newfoundlanders were mostly fisherman, not sailors, and they were home all the time. Though almost everyone outside of St. John’s grew vegetables, full time farmers were a distinct minority. By contrast, both the Mummer’s Song and Saltwater Cowboys are quintessentially Newfoundland songs. A Nashville recording artist could never cover one of those songs.

The Mummer’s Song was about the dying tradition of mummering in Newfoundland, but instead of just being a lament for a lost tradition, it actually managed to preserve and revive it. Simani and its most famous song legitimately deserves the bulk of the credit for the tradition of mummering still existing in this province today.

Mummering was not invented in Newfoundland. We brought it with us from the British Isles. It also existed in 19th Century Russia. There is actually a section in War and Peace where some of the main characters go mummering, yet the practice has long since disappeared from Russian culture. The only place on earth where a large majority of the population have ever heard of mummering is Newfoundland and Labrador and that is due in large part to a great song by Simani.

Saltwater Cowboys is not as popular, nor has it had the same kind of cultural impact as the Mummer’s Song, but it is the most culturally relevant, both when it was first released almost 35 years ago and today. The song, which is about Newfoundlanders going to Alberta to work in the oil industry and coming back home looking and talking differently could just as well have been released last week as in 1981.

In some ways it is understandable that Simani does not get much attention these days. They gave up performing 18 years ago and half of the duo, Sim Savoury, passed away in 2010. Bud Davidge, who wrote and sang all of the songs is still alive and well, and it would be nice to see him get some of the recognition that he so rightly deserves while he was still with us.

Hyper-Partisanship is a Form of Mental Illness

Few things are as wearisome as a rabid political hyper-partisan. Many people like to heap scorn on these people for the ludicrous and predictable things that they say, but before you join in the piling on, you might want to consider whether these people are actually suffering from a type of mental illness.

When I talk about hyper-partisans, I am not talking about actual politicians. Their form of partisanship is entirely rational and understandable. When you are a member of a political party you generally have to support your party’s policies publicly, and work behind the scenes to try and modify them. You may disagree with that, but it is at least logical. I am also not talking about ideologues. Reasonable people can have radically different ideological views that will cause them to stridently disagree with one another. One person may believe in lower taxes and smaller government while another person might want higher taxes and more government spending. Those people will likely always be dependable voters for whichever party shares that view, though they are in actuality just loyal to a policy, not a party.

What I am talking about is people who have sworn an allegiance to a political party and will defend everything that party does and attack everything the other party does, regardless of where it falls on a political or ideological spectrum. Someone who is driven by ideology will abandon a party if he or she believes its policies no longer match up with their ideology. This is what happened in Western Canada when right wing voters abandoned the federal Progressive Conservative Party. A hyper-partisan will passionately support a party no matter what changes it makes to its policies.

This phenomenon is particularly obvious in Newfoundland and Labrador, where the only two parties who ever hold power have little, if any, differences in ideology. There isn’t a single ideological issue that would cause a voter to be fanatically devoted to one of the parties. With taxes, both parties have raised and lowered taxes at one time or another. Social issues like abortion and gay rights never come up in elections in this province. Yet despite the lack of clear ideological divide there appear to be just as many hyper-partisan voters here as there are in the US, where parties have a markedly different positions on polarizing issues like abortion, immigration, taxes, and gay marriage.

What is striking is that many of these hyper-partisans have nothing to gain from their strident partisanship. They don’t work for the party and nobody in the party would ever consider putting them in any kind of position of authority. Their lives probably won’t materially change no matter the party in power, yet every day they call open line shows, rant on social media and fill up the online comments section of the CBC website.

If they had a direct material interest in one party’s success I would say it was an act, but most of these people are completely honest and sincere. They really believe what they are saying. When their party loses they truly believe the media was out to get them. When they win they think the other party’s partisans are being a bunch of sooks for blaming the media. If you are a Liberal hyper-partisan and someone from the PC Premier’s security staff shoots someone you believe it was an assassination. If you are a PC hyper-partisan then anyone who wants an inquiry is playing politics over someone’s unfortunate death. If a party leader said that sky was green there would be hyper-partisans calling open line to agree with them and say that people only think it is blue because they have been brainwashed by the media.

Hyper-partisans are essentially like people who are hallucinating and seeing visions; they see things that are not there. It is time to stop looking at hyper-partisanship as an annoyance and recognize that it is a type of mental illness. Instead of looking down on hyper-partisans and mocking them, we should try to get them the help that they need.