Williams's Liberals Elected in Newfoundland

WELL, SURE, Danny Williams looks like the latest larger-than-life figure to stride into the NEWFOUNDLAND premier's office. A lawyer and Rhodes Scholar who made millions in cable television, he's still socially engaged enough to have defended several of the victims of the Mount Cashel sex abuse scandal. And yes, on the face of it, "Danny Millions," as they like to call him on the Rock, may well have enough colour and charisma to one day be mentioned in the same breath as Joey Smallwood, Brian Peckford, Clyde Wells and Brian Tobin. But last week's Tory landslide, which ended almost 15 years of Grit rule in Newfoundland, showed he realizes it's not enough to just rant and roar. Throughout the campaign, Williams pretty much stayed away from the Ottawa-bashing that usually leads to power in Newfoundland. And he said hardly a peep about the province's time-honoured fishery, preferring, instead, to talk about diversifying the rural economy by attracting new businesses. Stephen Tomblin, a Memorial University political scientist, says Williams is a first for Newfoundland - "a premier who talks about taking 'a global view' and the 'new economy' and who actually knows what he's talking about."

Not that Newfoundlanders necessarily noticed. Despite enjoying one of their most prosperous decades ever, they wanted change - no matter what the ruling Grits promised. Brian Tobin's decision to abandon the premier's chair for Ottawa in 2000 had soured many on the Liberals. The flaccid campaign run by his successor Roger GRIMES didn't help either. "The choice is crystal clear," a disappointed Grimes said after the Tories picked up 15 seats from his party to finish with 34 of 48 seats. So, instead of a 15-year veteran of the Newfoundland House of Assembly, voters opted for a 53-year-old political neophyte who doesn't need the job - and who promises to donate his premier's salary to charity. "I'm not in it for the compensation," says Williams, who intends to stay no longer than two terms as premier. "I'm in here to roll up my sleeves and get the job done because I feel I can make a difference at a time when Newfoundland is at a crossroads."

Williams sold Cable Atlantic Inc. to Rogers Communications Inc. for $232 million in 2000. And in the world of Canadian politics - where, with the notable exception of Paul Martin, candidates of independent means rarely seek office - that's another thing that sets him apart. He grew up in a blueblood Newfoundland Tory clan and studied political science at Memorial and law at Oxford before returning home to St. John's to open his law practice. He went on to build and sell his cable empire, attract a junior hockey team to St. John's, and launch other business ventures. Now, when he could be sitting back enjoying his wealth and his family - he and his wife, Maureen, have four children and two grandchildren - he says it's payback time for a province that has been good to him.

The applause may have to wait: one of his central campaign planks was reining in government spending. During the race, the Liberals and NDP predicted massive civil service layoffs - a theme which they are likely to continue with when the legislature reconvenes. That's nonsense, Williams says of those dire predictions. But, as he's likely to discover once he moves into the premier's office, that's also politics.

Maclean's November 3, 2003