ST. JOHN’S, N.L. — Premier Danny Williams is off-the-charts popular but his supremacy in one of the most lopsided legislatures in Canada has a dark side, critics say.
In some political circles in Newfoundland and Labrador, they call it the “Cult of Danny.”
It’s a phenomenon that embraces strong leadership as much as it seems to tolerate strong-arm control tactics and a flair for verbal bashing.
“Why do people put so much hope in one person?” wonders Lorraine Michael, the sole New Democrat in a Gang of Five opposition that includes four Liberals.
“We do have a personality cult mentality here in Newfoundland and Labrador and a lot of it is based on his personality.”
Once a fresh political session starts Monday with a throne speech, the outgunned opposition will face 43 Progressive Conservatives led by Williams with a shoot-from-the-lip style many voters support.
Two independent polls earlier this month suggest stratospheric personal and government approval ratings of 80 to 93 per cent — eclipsing other premiers both present and past.
People love to exalt a hero, Michael said, recalling the decades when Liberal premier Joey Smallwood ran the province with an iron grip.
“It comes down to that. It seems to be part of the Newfoundland psyche, actually.”
But you’d better stay on the hero’s good side, say critics and other political observers.
Perhaps no one knows that better than Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who was shut out of all seven federal seats in the province in 2008 when Williams led his Anything But Conservative campaign.
A crossed premier might publicly chide doctors for making higher wage demands during private contract negotiations, as they found out last week.
Ask to see legal opinions supporting the government’s latest efforts to sue Hydro-Quebec for more power profits and you might be called a “traitor.” Liberal Leader Yvonne Jones found that out last year, as Williams also hinted she might be in cahoots with the Quebec utility to undermine her own province.
And Williams made national headlines last June after losing his temper on a popular open-line radio show. He accused the host of spreading “crap and pessimism” because, after the announcement of a multibillion-dollar offshore oil deal, he asked what Williams might do for the troubled fishery and forestry sectors.
“No regrets,” the premier told the CBC the next day.
“I’m at a stage in my life and my career where, when people are misrepresenting facts or there is over-negativity when things are going well, then I am going to react.”
Williams rejected any notion that the tone he sets may somehow intimidate people, snuff debate or raise fears of blacklisting.
“We are very proud of our record as a government and we feel strongly that the reason the people so strongly support us is that they believe in what we are doing and the direction in which we are taking this province,” he said in a statement Friday.
“Newfoundlanders and Labradorians are proud, strong people who have never been afraid to speak their minds.”
Still, some people say such a concentration of power in the premier’s office has disturbing effects.
“If anybody thinks democracy is healthy in this province just look at the voter turnout the other day,” said Michael Temelini, a political scientist at Memorial University.
He was referring to a landslide byelection victory for the Tories last week in which only about one-third of eligible voters cast ballots.
Opposition parties face a “dangerous cycle” in the face of “this juggernaut of the Progressive Conservative Party of Newfoundland,” Temelini said.
It becomes harder to attract candidates when they feel they have little chance of winning, he added. Voters tend to tune out.
“As popular as (Williams) may be, we should be paying as much attention to the house of assembly and its important role in upholding our democratic system. People should stop paying so much attention to the executive branch. But that’s what happens when you get one party in power.
“What’s going on in Newfoundland is people are just going to wait until Danny Williams retires. Now that’s a problem.”
Williams, 60, has repeatedly said he plans to run for re-election next year.
Liberal opposition house leader Kelvin Parsons says despite the woefully uneven numbers — and the government cutting its research budget — his party has made headway.
He cites as an example the judicial inquiry into botched breast cancer tests, which he says the Liberals helped bring about.
Most recently, Liberals demanded action on flawed lab tests involving about 200 recipients of the drug cyclosporine that the government initially downplayed, Parsons said.
Michael hopes to speed promised legislation to protect whistleblowers, and to force more funding for affordable housing, home care and pharmacare for seniors.
During the October 2007 election campaign, Williams promised to introduce whistleblower legislation “at the very earliest opportunity.”
Government house leader Joan Burke said a bill is in the works but could not say when it might move forward. She expects a review of child and family services legislation to be a major focus this session.
Michael wonders how long the “Cult of Danny” can endure.
“It breaks down eventually,” she said. “It did with Joey Smallwood.”