‘This is our opportunity to become self-sufficient,’ says Newfoundland’s premier

DANNY WILLIAMS February 16 2004


‘This is our opportunity to become self-sufficient,’ says Newfoundland’s premier

DANNY WILLIAMS February 16 2004



‘This is our opportunity to become self-sufficient,’ says Newfoundland’s premier


Danny Williams, elected premier of Newfoundland and Labrador last October, faces a mountain of problems. Among other things, the province’s annual budget deficit is $827 million and rising, the population is about 520,000 and falling, and the cod fishery is gone and may never come back. But the energetic lawyer, who made millions in the cable TV business before becoming the Progressive Conservative leader in 2001, is upbeat. On a recent visit to Toronto, Williams, 53, met with a group o/'Maclean’s writers and editors to discuss his plans for turning around his province’s fortunes.

In your dealings with Ottawa, you seem to be making an effort to be co-operative rather than confrontational.

I have to work with Prime Minister Martin, and I’m prepared to try. When we were out in Regina for the First Ministers Conference at the Grey Cup, we hit it off first time around, in the discussions that we were having around the table. He came to me afterwards and said, “I really appreciated your intervention because you told it the way it is.” I said, “Well, that’s the way Fm going to be. I don’t have time for nonsense, to be quite honest with you.”

Are you concerned about Stephen Harper’s comments about Atlantic Canada’s “culture of defeat”?

Fm prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt. If he made an improper statement without any real sober second thought, then he can’t be penalized forever for saying it. However, being in the position that he’s in, he shouldn’t have said it.

You’ve gone straight from business to politics. Any tips for Belinda Stronach?

She’s got to be patient, and she’s got to be herself. When handlers try to change you into something you’re not, you’re going to get caught off-guard.

What’s the most difficult job facing you?

Right now we’re going through a tough time. Our gross expenditures are a little over $4 billion and we’re going to pay $1 billion this year in just debt service alone. My approach has been to get the province under control fiscally, but I’ve also got to grow the economy, and I have very little wiggle room. That’s why it’s so important that the federal government give us the benefit of our natural resources. We will get 15 per cent of [offshore oil] revenues, the federal government will get 85 per cent. Those revenues will peak in 2010 and 2011, and then it’ll drop off. So we have a very narrow window of opportunity here, and if we don’t get a piece of that action then it’s lost forever. This is our opportunity to finally become self-sufficient, to become masters of our own destiny.

How does your oil and gas deal compare with those of other provinces, like Alberta?

In Alberta, the people get 100 per cent of thenrevenues. Because we have equalization benefits, for every dollar that we get, Ottawa claws back 85 cents.

How did Newfoundland’s deficit get so large?

It’s accumulation. There has been some mismanagement in the last 10 years. For instance, last year public service employees were given five-per-cent salary increases for three years retroactive. That cost us $350 million annually. The public servants hadn’t had an increase for maybe 7 V2 years. But it was just too much, too fast.

You say you have five core issues that preoccupy you in government.

Oil and gas revenues. Churchill Falls was another one—Paul Martin indicated that he felt that was a project of national significance, which I was delighted to hear. The fishery, of course, is always an issue with Ottawa, particularly foreign overfishing. The tunnel is another issue. And Goose Bay: the possibility of the NATO forces coming out of Goose Bay is a huge issue for that area up there—it’s about $100 million to the economy.

How serious are you about this fixed link?

Dead serious. In Newfoundland and Labrador, everything’s shifted to the east coast. The fixed link would be well into the northern peninsula, so it accomplishes a few things. It would promote a movement to populate the west, and it would join our province to Labrador and to the country. I think it’s critical to our future. Our population is dwindling down close to half a million people. We’ve lost 50,000 people in the last nine years. If we’re going to turn that around, these are critical pieces of infrastructure that we need. People see this as some grandiose scheme, but they said the same thing about the Hibernia platform.

Do you think the cod fishery will come back?

If we can get some good conservation measures in place, perhaps in 25 years you might see it restored. But you can’t have these foreign trawlers overfishing off the Grand Banks, gutting the place up.

Have you called your first session of the House of Assembly?

I’m not going to call. We’re not going to bring the House back ever again! It’s just a personal preference. [Laughs.] No, it’s going to be probably the second week of March. I have to say, I found in opposition there were times I shook my head and said, “You know, this could be so much more productive.” I find there’s a lot of wasted time in the House where people get up to talk just for the sake of talking. I’d like to find ways to make it more efficient, more productive, so we can go ahead and get the work done.

There was a time when, late in a session, some legislators would be half drunk. Has that improved?

No, now they’re completely drunk. [Laughs.]

It looks as though the anti-sealing activists have recruited Paris Hilton and are stepping up their campaign against the seal hunt.

I saw that. I couldn’t believe it. You know, I’ve talked to knowledgeable people in the fishery who don’t think the seals are a problem. Personally, I do think we need to cut back on the seals. But I’m not going to make any rash decisions along those lines until we do get the proper research done. Of course, the federal government has been doing some, and has shown that it is a problem. M