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opinion

Jeffrey SimpsonBill Grimshaw

Premier Danny Williams's party just lost a by-election in rural Newfoundland. The defeat must have galled him greatly, since the Progressive Conservatives threw a fair bit of muscle into the fight and Mr. Williams hates to lose, ever.

Fear not for his grip on Newfoundland politics, though. The Premier enjoys an approval rating of almost 80 per cent. The by-election defeat signified little. Danny rules the Rock, and those who deal with him there and elsewhere know it. He's the most popular premier in Canada, period.

Mr. Williams understands, personifies, abets and capitalizes upon the deep-seated sentiments in Newfoundland that the province has been, and continues to be, put upon by others, be they Europeans, Quebeckers, the federal government and even sometimes Maritimers.

Just now, for example, he has bad relations with Ottawa, Quebec City and New Brunswick and was the only premier to oppose opening free-trade negotiations with the European Union. Along the interprovincial network, his relations are frayed; with Ottawa, they remain glacial, despite his protestations of late that he really, truly and sincerely wants to get along with Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

Let bygones be bygones, he says of previous tiffs with Mr. Harper. Let's work together, he says. Maybe they can patch things up. Both of them have elephantine memories, however. In Mr. Harper's case, it won't be easy to forget or forgive Mr. Williams's efforts in the last campaign to choose Anybody But Conservatives to go to Ottawa. Which is what happened: The Liberals swept six of the province's seven seats, with the New Democrats taking the seventh.

This result underscored Mr. Williams's grip on the province, but was it smart? Newfoundland, with 500,000 people and only seven seats in Parliament, had often had political protectors and influential civil servants in Ottawa who sometimes came in more than handy. Now the province has almost no voice in Ottawa.

In Newfoundland, almost nobody dares cross Mr. Williams. It's a small place with big ears. Say something bad about the Premier and word gets around. Cross him publicly, and watch out.

Eddy Campbell found that out. Mr. Campbell had been selected by a search committee to be the new principal of Memorial University of Newfoundland. But Mr. Williams blocked the appointment because Mr. Campbell had been part of the administration that had opposed the Premier's plans to make the Memorial campus at Corner Brook into a full-fledged university - a rather silly idea, given the small number of students and the declining population of western Newfoundland.

Mr. Campbell fled Memorial to become president of the University of New Brunswick. Another search committee chose someone else, from Alberta. This time, the Premier kept his nose out of the process. The next step should be to amend the legislation that gives the provincial government the right to interfere. Don't hold your breath.

Mr. Williams promised "no more giveaways" of Newfoundland's resources, and he is delivering on that pledge. He has wrestled a small equity share of offshore oil projects from multinationals that originally opposed the idea. He has put offshore energy and hydro into one Crown-owned entity and made it the driving force for the province's potentially very bright energy future. In other words, Newfoundland is going to have a stake in, or outright control of, energy projects - and that includes the elusive Lower Churchill hydroelectric project in Labrador.

It has been a great development for Newfoundland and Canada that the province is off equalization and the dependency syndrome that equalization brings. How amazing, to turn things around, that Ontario is getting equalization and Newfoundland is not.

Mr. Williams's ambition - and it is a fine one indeed - would see Newfoundland become an energy powerhouse: offshore oil, wind power galore from Labrador and the island, Lower Churchill and a few smaller hydro developments in Labrador and maybe offshore natural gas, depending on world prices.

For this dream to unfold, he needs above all to build the Lower Churchill, with the transmission of that power - and eventually renewable power from wind or natural gas - flowing to the United States and/or Ontario. Which is why he is apoplectic these days about the possibility that Hydro-Québec might purchase New Brunswick Hydro, thereby encircling Newfoundland.

His rough tongue about that proposed deal was typical. After all, he's the Premier who pulled down the Canadian flag in a pique of anger, a gesture/stunt that pleased some Newfoundlanders, but galled most Canadians elsewhere.

Mr. Williams didn't care, and still doesn't. He's Danny of the Rock, and his popularity remains rock solid.

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