It was a bash to celebrate Newfoundland and Labrador’s economic independence, its coming off of Ottawa’s teat.
In November 2008, then premier Danny Williams announced the province had stopped receiving federal equalization payments — a year earlier than anticipated.
It was good news and the government wanted to celebrate.
After all, nationally, Newfoundland and Labrador had long been considered an economic basket case and this was a chance to celebrate the province’s oil-fuelled turnaround.
A “have” party was tentatively set for March 31, 2009 — fittingly, the 60th anniversary of Confederation with Canada.
The event would celebrate the province’s culture and history. But then came bad news — lots of it.
The world’s economy was hit by a devastating slowdown from which some countries are still trying to recover.
Although Newfoundland and Labrador weathered the storm well, it wasn’t immune to turbulence and turmoil.
The paper mill in Grand Falls-Windsor closed, although that had been coming for some time. The mining industry took a hit as the global demand for commodities dipped. IOC pulled the plug on a major expansion in Labrador. Other industries faced uncertainty.
Because of the misfortunes, the plan to celebrate “have” status came under criticism.
The government announced it was reassessing the bash.
Then Cougar Helicopter Flight 491 ditched into the Atlantic while ferrying workers to the offshore. Seventeen people died and the province’s collective heart broke.
The party was off.
“Given the economic times, we’ve pulled back on any kind of celebration,” Williams told reporters at the time, “and as well, the province has gone through some difficult times in the last two or three weeks, with the helicopter tragedy. It’s not a time for a celebration, and it’s not appropriate.”
Anyone living in Newfoundland and Labrador would have agreed. It wasn’t.
But cancelling the party came with a price. A lot had already been spent.
According to documents obtained by The Telegram, the province had incurred $174,986 in expenses, the bulk of it going to a production company ($53,833) and a marketing firm ($47,154).
The rest covered pay for the event’s co-chairs and contracted staff.
Liberal Leader Yvonne Jones thinks the expense is unacceptable and shows the government’s wastefulness.
“It’s quite obvious when you look at $20 million for holes in the ground up in Parsons Pond and then you look at the fact they are spending almost $200,000 on trying to organize a party. I mean, some of these things are a little bit over the top,” she said Friday. “And they’re doing this all in the fiscal reality that many people in this province are not ‘have.’ The Government of Newfoundland and Labrador may be ‘have,’ but there’s a lot of people in this province who are not ‘have’ and a lot of communities who are not ‘have’ and who would have liked to have seen some of that money invested into what their everyday needs are.”
Jones doesn’t think the money spent organizing the party will go over well with people.
“It certainly doesn’t go over well with me,” she said.
“I think the government of the day has more money than they have sense.”
The Liberal leader believes there were ways the government could have better marked finally obtaining “have” status, like setting up a scholarship or heritage fund.
“They could have done it in a way that had tremendous and long-term benefits for the people of this province and, unfortunately, this government didn’t see that as a benefit unless it was a party that they could be showcased in. It’s quite obvious that they had no interest in marking this occasion.”
But Tourism Minister Terry French suggests that had it happened, the bash would have been a massive celebration for Newfoundlanders and Labradorians, one that would have promoted the province to the rest of the country.
“It was going to be one of those ‘Finish the Drive in 65’ moments. It was going to be a celebration to all of us. We all pumped our chests out and said, ‘We don’t need handouts anymore. We’re paying our own way. We’re contributing.’ Because we believed that for years, but now economically, it was shown on paper. So it was a time to celebrate.”
French said the party simply couldn’t have proceeded given the circumstances.
He considers the $175,000 bill unfortunate.
“Obviously, who wants to be paying for something that doesn’t happen? It’s not something we are thumping our chests about today.”
But the minister argues the cash wasn’t just flushed down the drain.
“No, it wasn’t a waste of money, because we have the work done now that we can use into the future,” he said.
That work, French explained, includes a production plan and marketing scheme that can be applied to significant celebrations.
“Down life’s road, hopefully — being Newfoundland and Labradorians — we’ll find something to celebrate … and we’ve got a significant piece of work done now to throw that kind of event.”
French said there have been internal conversations about what that event might be, but no concrete decisions have been made.
Asked how much the “have” party might have cost if it had gone ahead, French said he hadn’t seen the projections.
“It would have been more money, and certainly significantly more, but how much? I don’t have a number to tell you.”