Nfld. & Labrador

Rift widens between Harper, Williams

Differences between Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Danny Williams have become more stark than ever, following a weekend meeting of provincial Tories.

Harper does not expect premier's support, PMO statement says

Differencesbetween Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Danny Williams have become more stark than ever, following aweekend meeting of provincial Tories.

Harper came to Gander for the annual provincial Progressive Conservative convention to address delegates and mend fences with Williams, with whom he has had a sometimes raucous relationship.

After meeting Harper, Williams told delegates the two men are still at odds because the prime minister would not back up a written promise on equalization that he had made in January during the federal election campaign.

"That's when it hit the fan, believe you me," Williams told delegates to the Progressive Conservative convention at a banquet, as he recounted a conversation he had with Harper.

"This prime minister is telling me when he comes into my province, into our town, to our convention, that he hasn't made his mind up yet," Williams told delegates, attending a meeting in Gander.

"Well, he better make his mind up, I can tell you right now."

Harper vowed to keep resources out of equalization

In his Jan. 4 letter, written in response to a list of issues that Williams put before each of the federal leaders, Harper vowed to keep non-renewable energy resources out of the equalization formula.

"The Conservative government will ensure that no province is adversely affected from changes to the equalization formula," Harper wrote.

Williams said he was stunned that Harper did not repeat his written pledge, and warned of electoral payback if the position does not change.

"If not, when those federal election results come in across the country and they come to Newfoundland and Labrador, there better be a big goose egg for the Conservatives if they haven't delivered on their promise," Williams said.

Officials with the Prime Minister's Office declined a formal interview, but released a statement saying that Harper does not expect Williams's support.

As well, the statement said, that while Ottawa supports the Atlantic Accord and will not amend the deal, possible changes to the equalization formula are still being considered.

Williams willing to fight any PM

Williams fought former Liberal prime minister Paul Martin during a high-profile war of words in 2004, leading to the revised Atlantic Accord in early 2005. The deal allows Newfoundland and Labrador and Nova Scotia to keep more of their offshore energy revenues without suffering clawbacks from the federal government.

In its statement, the PMO said it knows Williams will fight any prime minister on equalization issues.

In June, an advisory panel that had been appointed by the former Liberal government recommended blending non-renewable resources into the equalization formula.

Williams said that move would wipe out any gains Newfoundland and Labrador made from the Atlantic Accord, which involved a $2-billion advance that Williams used to retire public-sector debt.

Meanwhile, earlier in the weekend, Williams said he had won support from Harper for legislation that would force oil companies to develop offshore fields within a certain timeframe.

However, Harper's office said there is no support for the so-called "fallow field" legislation, and that the offshore oil industry should be developed in a free market context based on respect for contracts.

Williams has pondered such legislation since talks collapsed earlier this year between his government and proponents of the Hebron oil field, on the Grand Banks off Newfoundland's east coast.

Harper looking to tap into Williams's popularity?

The meeting in Gander had been intended to bring together the two Tory leaders, following months of growing tensions.

While Williams applauded Harper's election in January, he notably did little to campaign for the federal Conservatives during the campaign.

Williams has not shied from slinging criticism at the federal government on issues ranging from literacy funding to hydroelectric development.

As well, Williams suggested in September that Harper was a "big buddy to big oil" because he would not side with Williams on the Hebron dispute. Harper said the issue was a dispute between the province and the oil companies.

Michael Temelini, a political scientist at Memorial University in St. John's, said Harper's decision to come to the Gander meeting may have indicated a wish to tap into Williams' popularity. Public opinion polls have showed Williams and his party with overwhelming leads over other parties.

Harper, Temelini said, may have wanted to reach out to Tories who don't fall into the neo-conservative and social conservative camps.

"You have these red Tories, a tradition that's alive and well in Atlantic Canada— these two men symbolize and articulate these very traditions within the conservative ideology," said Temelini, speaking before the start of the convention.