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.”
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