Has politics become too negative in this province? Danny Williams thinks it has, and he blames the media. But as a number of observers have pointed out recently, the premier himself is no stranger to negativity. He can be quite incendiary when he wants to be.
When the Liberal party hired Craig Westcott as head spin master last month, a government minister released an email to the public that Westcott had sent to the premier’s office in 2009, asking if Williams was suffering from mental disease.
The contents of the email were greeted with the revulsion it deserved. But questions soon arose as to why the premier allowed its release so long after receiving it. Why wasn’t it released then? It seemed like a cynical ploy to discredit the Opposition’s new hire.
The answer to that question is obvious: of course it’s a political ploy! Westcott had re-entered party politics and was therefore fair game. Politicians play politics. The end.
What’s interesting, though, is that few of those who turned this affair back on the premier seemed troubled that the Liberals were poised to plunge deeper into that same cynical muck.
By now, half the planet knows about Westcott’s famous email. But few are aware of what led up to it.
For a couple of years at least, the premier had been refusing to grant interviews to Westcott because of what he considered to be an inherent bias. In his opinion, Westcott would never give him a fair hearing.
A while back, Westcott released a 2006 email exchange he had with communications director Elizabeth Matthews to media blogger Geoff Meeker, who posted it on his website.
At one point, after fielding several requests for an interview, Matthews finally sent Westcott a litany of descriptors he had used in the past to describe Williams.
Here are a few samples: “a small man,” “cowardly and self-demeaning,” “an immature and petty tyrant,” “another rich guy looking after his friends,” “duplicitous and cowardly,” “a bully ... a vindictive one,” “he’ll squat you like a fly” and “for leaders like that, only absolute power for themselves and abject loyalty will do.”
Westcott rightly points out that these were all opinion pieces. And in some instances, journalists are forced to do double duty, switching between reporter and commentator.
But given Westcott’s jump from journalist to pundit to Board of Trade speaker, from federal Conservative candidate to provincial Liberal hack, he clearly doffs and dons hats like a champion quick-change artist.
And those hats seem to serve only one purpose: to bring down Danny Williams by any means possible.
Now, this is fine, as long as he doesn’t resort to criminal methods. He can play the archnemesis all he wants; the Moriarty to Williams’ Sherlock Holmes.
But how can one take anything Westcott says without a grain of salt, any more than one would take a shiny, happy news release from a sitting politician on its face? The agenda is overt and unmistakeable.
Westcott considers himself a journalist by trade. Some refer to him as a maverick, someone who pulls no punches and tells it like it is.
Often, though, “it” is often nothing close to what he says it is. His over-the-top psychoanalysis of the premier is often comical in its excess. And all roads lead to that.
Take his assessment of how the government handled last year’s H1N1 flu vaccinations.
The provincial health department came in for both criticism and praise at the time. There were some glitches and missteps, but also examples of solid communications policy and adaptiveness.
For Westoctt, though, it was an abysmal failure. And In defending his assessment, he spends much of his time issuing broad slurs against the current and former health ministers, all wending its way back to Williams.
Again, via Meeker: “It’s important to remember that Danny Williams appointed each and every one of these fools, so the crucial failure of leadership rests squarely on his twitching shoulders.”
Perhaps Westcott sees himself as the one who will ultimately slay the dragon. The new Ray Guy against the ghost of Joey Smallwood.
But his righteous zeal has got the better of him. And now, the current Liberal guard are at risk of following the same path of gutter politics and ad hominem excess. Against someone as popular as Danny Williams, this is sheer lunacy.
Let negativity reign.
Peter Jackson is The Telegram’s commentary editor. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org