bishop's falls to buchans

Monday, January 31, 2005

Williams' Triumph

Monday, January 31, 2005

Deal Took Years to Reach

When the news came, there was no puff of white smoke in the vicinity of Langevin Block, only the frozen breath of passersby as they scurried through the -30 C ice box that is the nation’s capital in January.

Officials had been inside Langevin Block meeting for more than eight hours. Langevin, across the street from the Parliament buildings, is the nerve centre of the prime minister’s bureaucratic operations.

At a nearby restaurant, a group of reporters waited for word. At 7:22 p.m., one of their BlackBerries started to shake and dance on the table. Bzzt, bzzt. Handshakes and smiles, the message read.

Bzzt, bzzt. Another reporter, another BlackBerry message. This time from the other side of negotiations. It’s a deal, the message said.

Just over two hours later, at 9:30 p.m. Ottawa time, Prime Minister Paul Martin, Premier Danny Williams and Nova Scotia Premier John Hamm were in Parliament’s Centre Block making the announcement official.

“As you know, I’ve been concerned for some time now about the unique financial circumstances faced by both Newfoundland and Labrador and Nova Scotia,” the prime minister said, his words carried live on national television.

“For this reason, I committed to ensuring that both provinces keep 100 per cent of their revenues from the offshore. And I am pleased to announce tonight that we have arrived at an agreement in which this has been achieved.”

The people of Newfoundland and Nova Scotia had waited years to hear those words.
Finally, a combination of skill, strategy, luck, circumstances and political will allowed two of Canada’s smallest provinces to team up and achieve something they may never have accomplished on their own.

The weather in Ottawa Friday felt like Hoth in The Empire Strikes Back, the day of the Imperial invasion. Less snow on the ground, perhaps, and no storm troopers, but colder.
Those on the offensive this day were the underdogs — Nova Scotia and Newfoundland.
Premier Danny Williams and Nova Scotia Premier John Hamm left the Chateau Laurier hotel shortly after their 11 a.m. meeting was scheduled to begin. The two premiers were flanked by a throng of overcoat-clad officials as they made the short walk down Wellington Street to Langevin Block.

Williams, surrounded by reporters, telegraphed messages that a deal may be nigh. He even previewed lines he would use later in the evening, about Ottawa’s responsibility to protect the federal treasury.

More than 10 hours later, in the foyer of Parliament’s Centre Block, it was all handshakes and kind words.

Getting to that moment took years. Hamm recalled the day he kicked off Nova Scotia’s so-called Campaign For Fairness, the beginning of its effort to benefit more from its offshore oil resources.

“Let me say, that after four years and 11 days, I am very, very happy that it’s over,” Hamm said.

In perhaps the understatement of the whole Accord saga, the Nova Scotia premier acknowledged the contrasts in negotiating styles with his Newfoundland counterpart.
“While there have been differences in our approach … we have worked very effectively together as Atlantic Canadians, and I believe that the people of Newfoundland and Labrador and Nova Scotia have been well served by the way in which we have worked together.”

Afterwards, Williams acknowledged how important it was to have a negotiating partner.
The provinces worked as a unique tag team — a good-cop, bad-cop tandem, with Oscar-quality casting.

“The bad cop comes naturally to me, that wasn’t orchestrated,” Williams said. “John Hamm happens to be a very nice guy, and a very pleasant person. So, it fell in place quite naturally.”
Together, the two provinces worked to advance a file, in Ottawa parlance, that had languished for years without action.

But following a June promise, a period of inaction, months of flag flaps, harsh rhetoric about “insulting” offers and “betrayal,” it all came down to one last-chance effort Friday.

“It was a tough negotiation,” Williams said.

“I didn’t want to use the term ‘negotiation’ throughout, as a negotiating tactic. … Today, it was truly a negotiation.

“We went back and forth. We went through a lot of issues. We covered a lot of ground. Everyone was creative, which was wonderful. There was a genuine attempt by everybody to try and find a solution. And, eventually, because of the complexity of some of the issues, it came down to quantifying a dollar amount, which is basically what we settled on at the end of the day.”

And if the casting was Oscar-quality, so were the speeches Friday night.
The leaders thanked everybody but Halle Berry’s lawyer.

The only one with an unhappy countenance was federal Finance Minister Ralph Goodale.
Goodale didn’t speak, and looked like someone had kicked him in the solar plexus.

Last month, Williams vowed never to talk with Goodale again about the Atlantic Accord file.
But Friday night, the premier saluted Goodale as the person “who is responsible for the public treasury, and guards it well, believe me.

“This has been a battle. I can assure the people of Canada … that you’re in good hands. There’s no easy dollars going to be squeezed out of this crowd.”

The newfound happiness Friday night was a stunning reversal from earlier form.

After months of savaging Natural Resources Minister John Efford, the province’s representative in the federal cabinet, Williams said he was “grateful” for Efford’s contributions in a key federal portfolio.

“He added a great deal to this file, and was instrumental in concluding this matter today,” Williams said.

For his part, Efford looked like a man who had just escaped the hangman’s noose.
“I want to begin by saying I’m going to go back home Monday,” Efford said.

“I’ve been a proud Newfoundlander, and I’ve been a proud Canadian since 1949. I’ve been in politics since 1985 and never have I felt the pride of being a Canadian and a Newfoundlander and Labradorian as I do this evening, and prime minister, it’s because of you and I sincerely want to say thank you …

“To Premier Williams, over the last several months we’ve had our disagreements, and (provincial Finance Minister Loyola) Sullivan, we’ve had some words that we said, but it’s all worth it. It is absolutely all worth it. This is the beginning of a new future for Newfoundland and Labrador.”

New future, yes.
An end to all of Newfoundland’s problems, no.

The premier began playing down expectations the night the deal was reached.

He said the agreement would go a long way to salve the lingering hurt of past resource deals gone wrong, but would not be an economic panacea.

After all, Williams is not the Messiah, and he won’t be turning bog water into a full-bodied Shiraz anytime soon.

He is a skilled businessman and negotiator. He has a reputation in local business circles of turning down what are viewed as sweetheart deals, then managing to get something better.
That view held over on the national stage.

The only question being raised in Ottawa circles prior to Friday’s talks was not whether Williams was crazy, but just how crazy he was for turning down previous offers.

He has considerable communication skills, no doubt honed by his time in the courtroom and the boardroom. He used all of those skills during the Accord debate.

He refused to budge from his original position until the last minute, instead allowing the feds to make concession after concession.

His more incendiary actions — storming out of first ministers’ meetings, lowering the Maple Leaf — were calculated risks he knew would draw national attention to the Accord issue.
But without national attention, the Accord renegotiation may have joined a long list of promises buried in a very full political graveyard.

While the jury is out on any long-term damage those actions may cause, Williams ended up getting his deal.

He was helped by circumstances.

The original promise was made on the spur of the moment, at a time in the June federal election campaign when the prime minister actually looked in danger of losing.

No danger, no promise? No one will ever know.

Martin ended up winning a minority government, the most precarious of situations. Suddenly, every seat in the country — even those in the hinterlands — became vitally important to remaining in power.

Martin faces a tough session of Parliament, starting today. There is the same-sex marriage issue, and the spectre of the sponsorship scandal inquiry still ongoing.

The Atlantic Accord is now one less thing to worry about.

Paul Wells — a political reporter and columnist with Maclean’s magazine, who wrote an article on the Accord dispute last week — perhaps summed up that view most succinctly.

“Boiled down from five pages, the argument of my article is that Williams has no interest in calming down as long as Paul Martin looks like he can be rolled,” Wells wrote in his weblog. “And Paul Martin will never stop looking like he can be rolled.”

On the other side, Martin has insisted all along he wanted to give the province 100-per-cent benefits from the offshore, and this deal allows him to do that without mucking around in the minefield of the equalization program.

“I do believe that while this is a great day for Newfoundland and Labrador and Nova Scotia, it is a great day for Canada,” the prime minister said Friday night.

“The ability of individual provinces to use these offshore resources for the benefit of their people and the generations to follow is something that has been said by respective federal governments for a long time. And I am very glad that we have been able to deliver on that commitment.”

And Martin got to hear Williams, his tormentor of the past number of months, say this on national TV: “Today, I’m delighted — I’m very proud, I’m very pleased — that (the prime minister’s) promise, that commitment, has been delivered in full.”

Martin did it, when others said they would consider it.

While the province may not be broadcasting the fact, the deal appears essentially to be a modified version of the Dec. 22 Winnipeg offer, in terms of the first eight years.

The difference is that the province gets the money up front. It can invest its $2 billion advance payment and use the interest to offset the potentially restrictive terms it disliked about the Winnipeg offer. (That, of course, assumes the province decides against putting the money into the historic funnel of rubber boot factories and cucumber mega-projects.)

And the province will still receive benefits beyond $2 billion, should it qualify for them.

The figure, according to estimates agreed upon by the province and Ottawa, may come in at around $2.6 billion.

There are a number of other gains for the province.

The original Accord will be extended one year, to 2012 from 2011.

And the new deal could realistically now go through 2020 — or at least a couple of years beyond 2012.

It’s a big jump from the original October offer of $1.4 billion, tops, over eight years.

Instead, it’s $2 billion, minimum, over the same time frame, with the possibility of more, extending as far as 16 years down the road.
“I think it’s very important to live up to your commitments and to keep your word,” Martin said Friday.

The prime minister made his Atlantic Accord commitment in a phone call to Williams at 7:22 a.m. Newfoundland time, June 5, 2004.

He consummated it at 7:22 p.m. Ottawa time, Jan. 28, 2005.


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