Friday, December 03, 2010

Oh, Danny boy ... the pipes, the pipes are calling ...

My televisual guilty pleasure for the last while has been the reboot of Hawaii Five-O. It's fun, and funny, and pretty and shiny. It also stars Daniel Dae Kim, formerly of Lost and Angel, on whom I have a serious man-crush. And Grace Park, late of Battlestar Galactica, on whom I have a, well, regular crush . But the show also has a recurring fun moment for Newfoundlanders, whenever Steve McGarrett introduces himself and then says, "And his is my partner ... Danny Williams."

I'm not sure what the news coverage of Danny's resignation as premier is like in the rest of the country, but here in Newfoundland it's pretty much all anyone can talk about. Which I suppose is fair enough—in a province that breeds big personalities, Danny has been one of the biggest. And he has a stratospheric popularity that most politicians only attain in their fevered imaginations. In response to speculation that his resignation was prompted in part by his approval rating "plummeting" to sixty-seven percent, one caller on CBC radio this morning drily reminded us that Dalton McGuinty and Jean Charest are currently at sixteen and fourteen percent, respectively. Sixty-seven percent approval is what passes for public condemnation for Danny, who has spent the better part of his reign comfortably in the eighties.

That popularity does not however really reflect Danny Williams' deeply controversial nature: the flip side of his fearlessness, passion and determination to do right by Newfoundland is his reputation for being thin-skinned, autocratic, and vindictive. It is perhaps telling that the people who are most critical of him have tended to be those who have actually had to deal with him, and who have found themselves at the unpleasant end of his ire. But that, to hear testimonials on the news of late, is in fact a rather small minority.

I should probably offer the caveat here that I am not particularly well-versed in provincial politics, and hence cannot speak to the particulars and specifics of Danny's time in office. Anyone wanting a very incisive analysis of Newfoundland politics should check out Ed Hollett's blog, The Sir Robert Bond Papers. His post-mortem on Danny's resignation is particularly worth reading, as he offers a good breakdown of the appearances and realities of Danny's time in office.

I am myself more interested to see what happens next. When I read the Globe and Mail's article reporting on Danny's resignation, the most intriguing part was the comments section. A lot of Newfoundlanders posted, almost universally praising the departing premier. But the comments from people across the rest of the country were similarly glowing: one might have thought that the memory of Danny taking down Canadian flags at all government buildings five years ago would have stuck in people's craws still, but that event is either forgotten or has been eclipsed by the following years. Mainly, people praised him as a courageous politician with the cojones to stand up to Ottawa. Tellingly, some of the most frequently repeated comments were from people in B.C. or Ontario inviting Danny to come and run those provinces, favourably contrasting his efficacy against the incompetence of Gordon Campbell and Dalton McGuinty.

The second most common comment encouraged Danny to make the move into federal politics, usually framed in the sentiment that "we need more politicians like Danny in Ottawa!" I would dearly love to see him do this, but think it unlikely, for very similar reasons.

To be clear: it is not so much that I want Danny Williams as a player in Ottawa, as that I would be utterly fascinated to see how he fared. Really, it's a question of context: Danny could be as powerful and flamboyant as he has been, could in fact build his rather singular cult of personality, specifically because of where he is. One of the major reasons for his enormous popularity is that he essentially flipped the script for Newfoundland, and gave voice to the bone-deep pride its people have for their province, all the while being seen to stand up to the powers that be in Ottawa. He was fortunate in his adversary: his passionate advocacy for Newfoundland was best expressed in opposition to a cold, despotically indifferent Canada, and Stephen Harper obliged him by playing that role perfectly ... to the point where Danny had almost as broad a fan base outside Newfoundland as within.

The reason the prospect of Danny Williams entering federal politics fascinates me—and the reason why I think it's highly unlikely he will—is it would be interesting to see how he changed. On the larger stage, absent of his veritably Manichaean stance opposite Ottawa, he would lose much of the traction he had at home. Which is not to say he would not necessarily be a good politician—just that he would lose much of what made him "Danny" here in Newfoundland.

Of course, there is also the fact that he is hardly likely to receive a warm reception from the federal Tories, considering his relentless battles with Harper, whose apogee was undoubtedly his campaign during the last election to shut the Conservatives out of Newfoundland. Considering that Stephen Harper is even pettier and more vindictive than Danny himself, I would count the likelihood of him welcoming Danny to Ottawa at somewhere beneath absolute zero.

Ah, Danny—we hardly knew ye. Thanks for making politics interesting, if nothing else.

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