x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

From hockey to oil, premier plays to win

The ninth premier of this country's newest and easternmost province says he plays to win.

Danny Williams has been dubbed 'Danny Chavez' by some Canadian journalists.
Danny Williams has been dubbed 'Danny Chavez' by some Canadian journalists.

ST JOHN'S, NEWFOUNDLAND AND LABRADOR // The ninth premier of this country's newest and easternmost province says he plays to win. Danny Williams's competitive nature extends from weekly recreational ice hockey games to negotiations with Ottawa and oil companies exploiting the province's offshore reserves.

Since taking office in Nov 2003, Mr Williams has revamped Newfoundland and Labrador's oil sector, which currently produces nearly 310,000 barrels per day, 13 per cent of Canada's output of crude oil. "There're two thrusts," he said. "One was to get a bigger piece of the revenue in proportion to the federal government and, after that was achieved, was to get a fairer shake from the industry on a go-forward basis."

Mr Williams's desire to maximise the benefits of the province's natural resources, which also include cobalt, copper, nickel, timber and water, resonates deeply with his constituents. Newfoundland's decision to join the Canadian Confederation six decades ago - in a July 1948 referendum, 52.3 per cent of voters supported unification with the mainland, while 47.7 per cent opposed it - still informs the current politics.

The principal complaint of today's nationalists or anti-confederates is that Canada has gained far more from the province in commodities and money than it has ever returned through services and infrastructure. The sharpest grievance, echoed by Mr Williams, concerns exploitation of the province's resources by outsiders. Such history underscores the Newfoundland and Labrador premier's demand for a 4.9 per cent equity share in the offshore Hebron project, containing 731 million barrels of heavy oil, in his negotiations with Exxon Mobil, Chevron and PetroCanada.

The parties announced an agreement in Aug 2008, despite the cessation of talks in 2006, which was attributed to Mr Williams's demands on equity, higher royalties and downstream facilities. "The reason that equity was important to this province was because there's a history in this province of giveaways," he said. "Because of the Upper Churchill [hydroelectric dam in Labrador], this province is basically giving up $1.5 billion to $2 billion [Canadian] annually to Quebec as a result of a lopsided contract, for one, and an unfair contract, for want of a better term."

That deal, combined with the perceived mismanagement of the province's fishery by Ottawa, left bad feelings here. "The giveaway problem is something very dear to our hearts," Mr Williams said. To reverse this history, the province owns a five per cent stake in the extension of the White Rose offshore project; it will own a share in the upcoming Hibernia South development; and it is the sole owner of the Lower Churchill Falls hydro development in Labrador.

These assets are managed by Nalcor Energy, a provincial energy corporation that, Mr Williams said, will be able to negotiate fairly with the oil majors. Certainly, the premier's strategy of resource ownership derives impressive political returns from the population of roughly 500,000. His Progressive Conservative party, viewed as the inheritor of anti-confederate sentiment, holds 91 per cent of the seats in the provincial legislature following the 2007 election.

By all indications, people here are happy with Mr Williams's government. A March 2009 poll by the Halifax-based Corporate Research Associates shows 88 per cent of people are satisfied with the government's performance. Yet Mr Williams's efforts for a fair deal for Newfoundland and Labrador's residents are criticised by outsiders. When the Hebron negotiations ran aground in 2006, media pundits in Toronto and oil-rich Calgary started calling him "Danny Chavez", an unsubtle reference to the oil nationalisation efforts by the Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez.

The Globe and Mail newspaper even manipulated a picture of Mr Williams on the cover of its business magazine in Feb 2008 by placing a beret with a red star on his head. The headline termed him the "revolutionary Premier" who "beat Big Oil" because he achieved the equity share for Newfoundland and Labrador. "He's a businessman. He's a Rhodes scholar. He played university ice hockey. But if you read the Globe and Mail, you wouldn't believe it," said Prof Jerome Davis, who holds a Canada research chair in oil and gas policy at Dalhousie University. "Danny Williams is no more radical than Tony Blair. Under Blair, the British government has both raised and lowered taxes unilaterally on all the offshore fields they have."

Indeed, the premier's provincial detractors tend to disregard the comparison with Mr Chavez. Their criticisms focus on Mr Williams's zero-sum approach to criticism of his governance. "He always attacks the person, never addresses the issue or answers the question," said Geoff Meeker, a communications consultant and media commentator. "That's been his pattern of behaviour in conflict with organisations and individuals."

Mr Meeker cited Mr Williams's use of the word "inquisition" to describe a judge's questioning of senior governmental officials at an inquiry into flawed tests for breast cancer patients. Such allegations are not a little ironic as Mr Williams, like some of his predecessors, is framed as a loudmouthed, boisterous radical from Newfoundland and Labrador by the federal government. "And that's the way they tend to try and personalise and individualise people who take up the cause for the interests of the people in this province," Mr Williams said.

blambert@thenational.ae