CLOSE-UP: GEORGE BAKER

Bringing down the House

MADELAINE DROHAN November 30 1987
CLOSE-UP: GEORGE BAKER

Bringing down the House

MADELAINE DROHAN November 30 1987

Bringing down the House

CLOSE-UP: GEORGE BAKER

He is one of the few politicians who could emerge unscathed after calling Transport Minister John Crosbie “Mr. Potato Head” in the House of Commons. Indeed, although Crosbie can reduce opponents to tatters with his sharp-tongued wit, he is often more than evenly matched when he faces off against Liberal MP and fellow Newfoundlander George Baker, 45, of Gander-Twillingate. Their humorous exchanges, rooted in the tradition of Newfoundland politics, stand out in a

House that has become known for its vicious jibes and angry confrontations. For his part, Crosbie admits that he enjoys the verbal jousts. Declared Crosbie: “It is a welcome relief when Baker comes on. He is not vicious, and he is not trying to hurt anyone.”

In one recent exchange, Baker raised the question of Air Canada’s use of high-priced Belgian potatoes on some flights. The imports, Baker noted, were not “small potatoes to Canadian farmers.” Crosbie responded that the question was “half-baked,” leading Baker to make the “Mr. Potato Head” reference. Crosbie then called Baker “a real pomme de terrorist”—a pun on the French word for potato, pomme de terre—and their exchange brought down the House. But NDP House Leader Nelson Riis points out that Baker’s “clownlike antics are deceptive.” Indeed, Baker says that he uses humor as a tool, often to draw attention to the concerns of his 83,000 constituents, many of whom are fishermen and most of whom are poor. And among most MPs, Baker has a reputation for being, as former Liberal aide Thomas Axworthy described him, “quite tough-minded and a very strong defender of Newfoundland’s interests.”

In defending his constituents, Baker says that he has no shame. “I have never been afraid to make a fool of myself

to make a point,” he told i Maclean's. And he added I that a point made with I humor has more of an impact than one made in anger or, even worse, in deadly dull seriousness. Said Baker: “People will not remember unless you leave them with something.” As a result, he calls French fishing infractions “Chirac attacks” (after French Prime Minister Jacques Chirac), labels productivity bonuses to public servants “payoffs for layoffs” and describes Soviet aircraft intruding into Canadian airspace as “Russian bears having a picnic.” Baker says that his approach achieves results. For one thing, Air Canada has decided to use more Canadian potatoes, although officials deny

that Baker’s questions had any effect. But Baker has some detractors. Professional Newfoundland humorist Ray Guy said that island humor is more subtle than the brand that Baker and Crosbie practise. Said Guy: “It is not just oneliners and snappy repartee.” And Baker admits that he has been criticized for “trivializing” issues—although he rejects such charges. “Those who say that take themselves too seriously,” he said, adding that “they certainly did not grow in Newfoundland.”

Indeed, in the 204 poor communities that make up his riding, Baker says that humor continues to be a muchappreciated art. “It is the cheapest form of entertainment,” he said. And Baker’s roots are clearly embedded in that tradition. Born in a fishing family in the small town of Green’s Harbour— his grandmother delivered him because the community had no doctor—he says that as a young boy in the mid-1940s, he listened to broadcasts of the historic debates in St. John’s over whether Newfoundland should become Canada’s 10th province. The eloquence and humor of the politicians clearly made an impression. In 1967, when Baker was chief clerk and chief legislative librarian in the Newfoundland House of Assembly under Liberal Premier Joey Smallwood, he put out a record of the highlights of those taped debates, enti, tied Oh, What a Battle It Was! “These were speakers,” he recalled. “They recited hymns and poetry, and the humor was tremendous. It is gone now.”

A 1969 falling-out with Smallwood sent Baker back to university to study law. At the same time, he enjoyed a part-time career as a radio open-line host and radio producer and writer for the CBC. He left university in 1974 after having decided that politics “was where you could get things done.” His first attempt, in 1972, had been unsuccessful, but in 1974 he won and has continued to hold his seat, even through the 1984 '4 Tory landslide when his constituents gave him a 3,200-vote margin. Former Newfoundland Liberal leader William Rowe says that Baker’s success is due to the fact that he looks after the needs of his constituents first.

For Baker, that means receiving an average of 110 calls a day and spending much of his evenings on the telephone with his constituents. He proudly claims that he has the highest longdistance phone bill among MPs. And he also spends long hours in the Federal Appeals Court representing constituents on unemployment insurance appeals. As of Nov. 6, he had 105 appeals * pending. In fact, although Baker is often seen on TV news making a quip in the House, he says that he spends 99 per cent of his time outside Parliament, either working for his constituents in Ottawa or returning to his riding, where his wife, Averill, and one of his four children—three are away at university-live. Declared Baker: “The

House of Commons to me is a sideline.

It is an avocation, not a vocation.”

Baker says that he brushes aside criticism from some colleagues that he does not spend enough time on party business. “They do not vote for me,” he said, and added that “I never worry about my future with the party.” He says that he is unlikely to receive a cabinet post if the Liberals regain power, largely because of his lack of interest in the business of politics. But Baker appears unconcerned at the prospect of remaining on the back benches. “I want to be known,” he said, “as having done the best for my constituents.”

MADELAINE DROHAN

in Ottawa