Few premiers can match Danny Williams's popularity

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The Gazette, Monday, November 29, 2010

Any time a political leader gets to leave on a high note, at a moment of his own choosing, you have to hand it to him.

The departure of Premier Danny Williams of Newfoundland and Labrador is quite a contrast to that of Gordon Campbell in British Columbia, mortally wounded, being carted off the field by his own team.

Williams chose his moment, going out on a high after negotiating a deal with Nova Scotia to develop electricity from the Lower Churchill. Thwarted by Quebec's refusal to reopen the 1969 contract on the Upper Churchill in Labrador and its refusal to transmit power from the Lower Churchill, Williams found another route across the Gulf of St. Lawrence to Nova Scotia.

Williams also found a way around Quebec, finally closing the books on the historic error of Joey Smallwood in selling 5,000 megawatts of Upper Churchill output to Hydro-Quebec for 65 years at a fixed rate equivalent to $1.60 per barrel of oil. There is no deeper wound on the Newfoundland body politic.

Thanks to the Mulroney government's Atlantic Accord, which gave Newfoundland the same ownership of offshore oil as Alberta had for oil in the ground, the Rock has been transformed from a have-not to a have province. Ottawa's $2.8 billion in loan guarantees for the Hibernia project in 1990 also didn't hurt. These would be the two main reasons Williams showed up in Montreal last year for the party to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Brian Mulroney's election as prime minister.

Williams has been harder on other prime ministers, famously taking down the Canadian flag in front of his legislature in 2004 when he didn't get what he wanted from Paul Martin, and running an Anybody But Conservative campaign against Stephen Harper in 2008, which left Newfoundland without a seat in the government.

Newfoundland has a tradition of electing orators as leaders, going to all the way back to Smallwood, down to Brian Peckford, Clyde Wells and Williams. Newfoundlanders expect their premier to state their case and defend their interests on the mainland. No one will dispute that Williams has done so -aggressively and loquaciously.

In contrast to Williams leaving at the peak of his game, British Columbia's Campbell is essentially being evicted by his own party, with his approval rating down to nine per cent.

Campbell did a lot of courageous and necessary things in three terms as premier, but he might have spent too much time hosting the Vancouver Olympics. And his introduction of a harmonized sales tax with the federal GST, on top of a carbon tax he brought in last year, proved to be the tipping point of his leadership. Voters hate visible taxes, and nothing is more visible than a gas pump or a cash register.

Elsewhere in the federation, incumbents are in serious difficulty in Alberta, Ontario, and Quebec. After 40 years in office in Alberta, the Conservatives under Ed Stelmach are facing a serious threat from Danielle Smith and the Wild Rose Party on the right. In Ontario, looking at a fixed-date election next October, two-term Premier Dalton McGuinty has seen his own approval numbers plummet in the months since his province introduced a 13-percent harmonized sales tax. He's getting all the blame and Ottawa's getting none.

As for Jean Charest's problems in Quebec: He has been dogged for months by ethics issues, unable to change the channel to the economy.

But Charest might catch a break in today's Kamouraska-Temiscouata by-election, necessitated by the death of the popular Liberal, Claude Bechard. With a 78-per-cent disapproval rating for Charest, the Liberals should be losing, but they're not, according to a CROP poll, which puts them at 34 per cent, the Parti Quebecois at 32 per cent, with the Action democratique du Quebec at 25 per cent.

The Liberals have been running a "win one for the Gipper" campaign in memory of Bechard. It also didn't hurt that Charest unilaterally awarded the Montreal subway-car contract to Bombardier, creating 400 jobs at La Pocatiere. The Liberals have a better ground game, as well as the support of the area's Conservative MP, Bernard Genereux. And voters don't like Pauline Marois.

All things considered, Liberal France Dion should win by three to five points. Which would be what Charest needs -a relief rally.

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