Premier Danny Williams Gives Prominence to Newfoundland's Concerns | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Premier Danny Williams Gives Prominence to Newfoundland's Concerns

This article was originally published in Maclean’s magazine on December 20, 2004. Partner content is not updated.

The suits are more conservative these days, the partying is toned down, but there's still plenty of mischief at the heart of Danny Williams.
Danny Williams, politician
Danny Williams, Premier of Newfoundland and Labrador 2003-2010 (courtesy Maclean's).

Premier Danny Williams Gives Prominence to Newfoundland's Concerns

 FOR SOME REASON, most of the really good stories about Danny WILLIAMS seem to involve him crashing parties. Like the time more than a decade ago - years before he ever thought of becoming premier of NEWFOUNDLAND AND LABRADOR - that he was at a big television industry convention in the southern United States. Owning the province's largest cable company made Williams a mover and shaker in St. John's, but it wasn't enough to pull an invite to the hottest event, a VIP pub crawl hosted by the Playboy Channel. So he and the boys got a copy of the itinerary, spruced themselves up - Danny a bit of a dandy in his plum-coloured suit - and headed down to the second stop of the night, hoping to blend into the crowd. The drinks were flowing, the food was good, the ladies were pretty. Everything was going to plan. Until Williams, never one to shy away, found himself being interviewed by a local TV crew. What did he make of this fabulous soirée? Williams grinned and gave viewers an introduction to Newfoundland humour. "I think the beer tastes like piss."

The suits are more conservative these days, the partying is toned down, but there's still plenty of mischief at the heart of Danny Williams. In office for little more than a year, the man they call "Danny Millions" (in 2000 he sold his cable company to Rogers for $232 million in cash and stock) is fast becoming the best show in Canadian politics. Scrappy, articulate and with a well-developed flair for the dramatic - it took him almost an entire day to angrily stomp out of a federal-provincial summit on equalization payments this October - Williams has vaulted Newfoundland's concerns to the top of the national agenda with his stunts and savvy. His capacity for making waves, and headlines, is seemingly unmatched.

Take a recent appearance in Toronto with the three other Atlantic premiers. The occasion was one of those Bay Street pilgrimages that provincial leaders regularly undertake to remind bankers and business people that life, and investment opportunities, exist outside of southern Ontario. The formula is familiar: the blue-chip audience gets an overcooked piece of salmon and some equally dry speeches. The other premiers stuck to their scripts and time limits. Not Williams. For close to a half-hour, he laid a thorough beating on the federal government. "I'm sporting a bit of a cold," he began. "I got a little too close to Paul Martin in the last couple of weeks and he was giving me the cold shoulder."

Williams provided chapter and verse of his battle with Ottawa for a bigger share of the wealth generated by offshore oil. He passionately advanced the idea that this is his province's last, best hope to become a have rather than a perennial have-not. And he delivered a shot across the Prime Minister's bow that had the crowd buzzing and reporters scribbling furiously. At the darkest point in the election campaign last June, he reminded the crowd, Paul Martin came to St. John's and promised the people of Newfoundland and Labrador 100 per cent of the oil royalties. "If he doesn't honour that commitment made to us during the election, then you have to decide if he will honour any commitment in any future election." Williams then took his seat, looking suitably serious, if not downright angry. But somewhere underneath it all there was the hint of a smile. If you believe in the righteousness of the cause, throwing bombs can be a fun way to make a living.

INSIDE THE sea-foam-green chamber of the House of Assembly in St. John's, the premier is doing his best not to look stupendously bored. It's a tame question period by Newfoundland standards - only one challenge from the leader of the opposition to a member of the government to cross the floor and engage in fisticuffs. A 25-year career in business and law as absolute ruler of his own fiefdoms qualified Williams for politics, but it didn't prepare him. He still bristles at the "wasted time" in the House, and the daily distractions that take him away from the real work of governing. And when the spotlight isn't on him, the 55-year-old tends to fidget like a schoolchild, staring into space, even twiddling his thumbs. Not that the opposition is demanding much of his attention these days. Their side of the House looks like a clear-cut - the Liberals and NDP account for just 14 of the chamber's 48 seats.

Williams is a breath of political fresh air. A Rhodes Scholar with Andy Travis hair who loves nothing better than mixing it up on the hockey rink and sharing a beer with the boys. As a crusading lawyer, he pioneered the use of battered wife syndrome as a murder defence in Canada, and negotiated an $11.2-million settlement for victims of abuse at the Mount Cashel orphanage. He parlayed a borrowed $2,500 into a personal fortune estimated at $150 million, yet beyond a passion for fast cars and fast driving there are few trappings of wealth. He barely mixes with the province's elite, preferring the company of a close circle of buddies - almost all a decade younger - including a cargo handler at the St. John's airport. He donates his $120,000 annual salary to a charitable foundation he set up to help families of children needing out-of-province medical care.

On balance, there have been more downs than ups since Williams's Tories swept to power in October 2003, but the battle over offshore oil has pumped the premier's popularity to dizzying heights. Like motherhood and the merits of Lamb's Palm Breeze rum, the quest for a "fair share" of resource revenue is something few Newfoundlanders will argue against. Last April, after the premier introduced the toughest back-to-work legislation in Canadian history to force an end to a one-month strike by 20,000 public service workers, Wayne Lucas, provincial head of the Canadian Union of Public Employees, called him "a miserable louse." But in this larger struggle, he now backs Williams "100 per cent," and is even offering to mobilize union support across the country. "We all got to stand shoulder to shoulder to see if we can fix this," says Lucas. "It's about our rightful place in Canada."

In his eighth-floor office, with its panoramic view of the city, Signal Hill and the Narrows, the premier raises an eyebrow when told about the union leader's comments. But he says he's learning not to be surprised at the deep vein of emotion he has tapped into. "A deal is a deal, a promise is a promise," he says. "It's a real matter of integrity and pride for the people of this province. This is a defining moment."

Like most federal-provincial conflicts, it's about money. Williams campaigned on the slogan "No More Giveaways," and the not necessarily compatible promise of a new era in Ottawa-Newfoundland relations. His initial meetings with Martin were downright cozy, but the wine quickly turned to vinegar. The feds are flush with cash, the province isn't (a wage freeze and dramatic budget cutbacks triggered the public service strike). Newfoundland's accumulated budget deficit for 2003-04, a figure that includes long-term liabilities like pension shortfalls, was $914 million. Its cash deficit stands at $135 million, and the net provincial debt at $11.5 billion. Under the current resource deal, the projected provincial oil royalties for next year are $122 million. Getting 100 per cent - as Martin publicly promised - would perhaps double that amount, depending on the world price. That's enough to balance the books, providing Ottawa doesn't rejig its $805-million annual equalization contribution to claw back the windfall - the sticking point.

"Whenever you hear the federal government talk about equalization, it means they're out to confuse everybody," says John Crosbie, the former federal finance minister. "It's the goddamn, son-of-a-bitch most complicated program you can imagine." What matters, says Crosbie, is the principle at stake. The original Atlantic Accord resource deal, signed in 1985 when he was in cabinet, was intended to make the provinces the main beneficiaries of offshore resources - something that hasn't happened since the Hibernia oil started flowing in 1997.

Ottawa's sudden attack of conscience last summer (as finance minister, Martin long ignored calls to revisit the accord) had everything to do with politics. And the new deal - which has seemed imminent for weeks - will be all about the next election. The federal Liberals captured five of the province's seven seats last time, largely on the strength of Martin's promise. Public sentiment is now so strong in Williams's favour that at least three of those Liberal MPs have been critically outspoken about their party's position - enough to make Martin's minority government fall should they back the opposition on a confidence vote. The times, it seems, have conspired to make Danny Williams the hero of a people. "He's the right man in the right place at the right time, and that's politics," says Jack Harris, leader of the provincial NDP, but also a former law partner and long-time friend of Williams. "And he needed this kind of boost because he was a guy who came in all hope and promises, and all we got was doom and gloom."

Other friends say Williams's rise isn't quite so accidental. Dean MacDonald, a former business partner who now heads up his own cable company and chairs the board of Newfoundland Hydro, says Williams is like a chess master when it comes to negotiations, thinking several moves ahead. "This is what Danny has been on about since the day I met him. It's the chip on his shoulder. It's all about the notion that we can't play in the bigs." The trick will be turning what looks certain to be one big score into a series of victories for the province on other irritants such as hydro, the fishery, and new oil and gas exploration. That - and not letting the firebrand public persona overshadow his deal maker's instincts.

The short track between Williams's temper and his mouth has a history of landing him in trouble. Back in the early '90s, when he was involved with the AHL St. John's Maple Leafs, a dispute with then deputy mayor Andy Wells escalated to the promise of a "shit knocking." The fight never happened, but Williams took another sort of revenge, halting broadcasts of city council meetings. And when the premier's son, Danny Jr., was viciously assaulted outside a bar on the eve of the public service strike this past spring, Williams immediately inferred union members were to blame, telling workers they would be out "until the cows come home." The man facing charges in the attack claims there was no connection to the labour dispute. "I don't apologize as a father," Williams now says. "But as premier, if I could go back in time, there are things I would change."

There are also grumblings about his tendency to run the province as if it is his own private business. In September, his health minister, Elizabeth Marshall, resigned after the premier intervened behind her back to settle a home-care nurses strike in his Corner Brook riding. He reacted by firing the department's well-respected deputy minister, saying she had failed to keep her boss informed, a move many portrayed as scape-goating. Crosbie, an admirer, draws a not-very-flattering parallel to a premier who was criticized as an autocrat. "Danny Williams is the most dominant leader we've had since Joey Smallwood."

Williams says he has no ambitions beyond making Newfoundland and Labrador a "better place." He flatly rejects the already swirling speculation about an eventual run for the federal Conservative leadership (although conspiracy theorists will be pleased to hear that he wants to become bilingual). In business, he walked away from a lot of sweet deals because they weren't the best he could get. A new oil and gas deal is more than that, he says, it's a hill he's willing to die on. "I don't want to come out of politics and be hated," says Williams. But fighting comes naturally to him. "If I'm wronged then I'll come out swinging." Paul Martin already has the lumps and bruises to prove it.

Maclean's December 20, 2004