There has been no shortage of opinion – and outrage – expressed this week, about Craig Westcott’s February 2009 email to the premier’s office.
And there can be no doubt about it: Westcott did a dumb thing. The email was stupid, inflammatory, and bizarre.
Westcott apologized two days later, and a full day too late. By rights, he should have come out with an apology on the day this broke. There would have been a blizzard of media attention and public outrage anyway, but it wouldn’t have been so prolonged.
As it was, the anger disappeared almost completely from the airwaves, on the day after Westcott said he was sorry. His apology threw water on whatever embers of controversy still smouldered.
A question that remains unresolved, and is still being raised in some quarters, is: should Westcott remain in the job? Should he resign, or be fired? Some people think so, though it’s not a very loud chorus, at this point.
My opinion? Westcott should stay in the job. He made a stupid mistake. He has taken his public drubbing, and apologized for his indiscretion. But the decision to keep him in the job is a matter between Westcott and his employer. If voters have strong feelings on this, and a long memory, they can vote against the Liberals in the next election. If Williams wants him removed, well, too bad – the premier’s power ends at the door to the Opposition office.
Politics in this province have been grossly lopsided since Williams won his massive majority. The Liberal party has been haphazard and ineffective, sometimes opposing the government and other times knuckling under to its dictates. (The Liberals’ decision to support the Abitibi expropriation was weak and they were forced to wear egg on their faces, when the blunder was revealed, rather than being able to say ‘I told you so.’)
We are heading into an election year. Good government means a strong Opposition. And the Liberals know that ‘more of the same’ is not an option. They have to take a stand on issues and meet this premier head on. Williams fights, and fights dirty. The Liberals will need to go toe to toe, or risk being trampled in 2011. Westcott is just one of four new hires, the others having gone under the radar amid the noise surrounding the email controversy, but they can only mean good things for the party.
That’s why I prefer that Westcott stay. He will NOT be a spokesperson who appears on camera. The elected members do that. Westcott will work behind the scenes, to help formulate communication strategies and write press releases that get noticed. But you can bet that his influence will show through.
And by ‘influence,’ I mean the penetrating, hard-hitting stance he took in the pages of the Business Post, not the crap he wrote in that email.
And what was up with that email, anyway? What on earth was Westcott thinking? He told me it was a joke – a “lark” – in an interview earlier this week.
Premier Williams didn’t accept that, saying it was no joke at all. If not a joke, then it was a serious question. It’s a stretch, but if the premier insists, I could possibly understand a serious question about his mental stability, given the way he blows his top at the slightest provocation. (Even Bill Rowe calls the premier "crazy" in his tell-all expose about Williams's equalization battle with Paul Martin.) However, a question about the “later stages of syphilis”? No way. Not valid, no matter how you twist it.
Westcott’s relationship with the premier’s office had gone south long before 2009, as evidenced by this email string from an earlier blog post of mine:
So, my theory is that Westcott’s email was a provocation; a poorly-considered attempt to get a rise out of the premier’s office.
I’ve known Westcott since about 1990, when he came to work at The Sunday Express. He was always a ‘black sheep,’ one who enjoyed defying convention, challenging authority and raising a stink. He has been known to burn bridges with former employers, and his criticisms of local media have sullied relationships with many colleagues. At a social gathering, he can also be counted on to say something politically incorrect.
That said, Westcott is a smart cookie who knows how to write a story. He also has a keen analytical eye, and – most relevantly – knows how to get under the premier’s skin.
Which is certainly one of the reasons why he was hired by the Liberal party, and why he should stay in that position: with Westcott working behind the scenes, it is guaranteed to be an interesting year in Newfoundland and Labrador politics.
But this story has more dimensions to it than the stupidity of Westcott’s email. At some point, after we get past the anger at Westcott, we have to think about what the Williams Government was attempting to accomplish here. What reaction did they want to provoke from the public? The media? Within the Liberal party? And why?
It’s all fairly evident, isn’t it? The Williams Government wanted to spark outrage among the general public, and a firestorm in local media. They succeeded at both.
They were also hoping to knock the Liberal Party back on its heels, and create an internal divide that would send Westcott packing. On this, they were not successful.
I’ve heard media people, callers to talk radio, and colleagues of mine say the timing of the release of this email is highly suspect. This is clearly the view of a considerable swath of the population. If the premier’s office was so upset by the email, why didn’t he release it in February 2009?
We know the reason: they were saving it for the most opportune time. Westcott is now working for the Liberals, and is a credible threat in the 2011 election. Williams says he wants people to know “what kind of person they are dealing with.”
However, on the day that he released the email, minister Kevin O’Brien said this: “If I was in Kelvin Parsons’s position, I would take some action, in regards to that (hiring) process.”
(And isn’t it amazing how fast they remembered this email, how fast they put their hands on it on Tuesday, when their memories were so hazy about other emails – concerning life and death issues – while testifying at the Cameron Inquiry?)
There is no doubt in my mind: Williams would like to see Westcott fired. His office wants to remove a threat; a canny opponent who knows how to penetrate Williams’s armour and drive him clear around the bend. It’s something they’d rather avoid during an election year.
This story, then, is not just about an email. It’s about getting rid of Westcott.
One other thing. For the first two days of this controversy, about 95 percent of calls to Open Line concerned Westcott’s email. Some sounded like political operatives, but the majority seemed to be average citizens, genuinely outraged. A few questioned the timing of the email’s release, but all were unanimous in condemning what Westcott wrote.
The most wrenching calls came from people who had been afflicted with, or whose family had been affected by, mental illness. There was anguish and confusion in their voices, and several criticized Westcott for “posting,” “airing” and “publishing” his comments.
Westcott, it is safe to say, didn’t expect his ill-considered message to ‘go public’. Had he known, he might never have hit ‘send’. He didn’t choose to make the email public.
The premier’s office did. They ‘aired’ the email. They used a distasteful note in a cynical, opportunistic way, to curry public sympathy and discredit a political enemy.
So those who were anguished and hurt by those words can thank Williams and Westcott, both, for their pain.