Return of the native scion

Robert Plaskin June 11 1979

Return of the native scion

Robert Plaskin June 11 1979

Return of the native scion

Robert Plaskin

While the rest of the nation slowly recuperates from election fever, party workers in Newfoundland are just replacing the old posters with new ones bearing new faces, new names. But the names hardly matter, since the June 18 provincial election will likely boil down to a battle between two men. A vote for whoever happens to be the Tory candidate in any riding will be a vote for Premier Brian Peckford. A vote for the Grit will be a vote for Donald C.

wrote his own invitation during a local interview spliced into federal electionnight TV coverage. After he had achieved a landslide re-election in his riding of Burin-St. George’s, and once it was painfully clear his fellow Liberals were not being returned to power in Ottawa, Jamieson bemoaned the state of politics in his native province, where people were out for what they could get. Gone, he said, was the idea of working for the people. Gone was the grand old Liberal party of yesterday’s Newfoundland.

Things developed quickly, with a

the public heat away from the May 22 fiasco.

The big question is whether or not Jamieson, 58, can succeed in pulling the Liberal fat from the fire. It’s going to be a hard fight, especially with the traditionally short (three-to four-week) Newfoundland election campaign period. But Jamieson has been a fighter ever since the late 1940s, when he and another enthusiastic young Newfoundlander, Geoff Stirling, ran the Economic Union campaign for Water Street merchant Ches Crosbie, battling the proposal for Confederation with Canada

Jamieson, Canada’s minister for external affairs, who with the federal Liberal rout of May 22 is now hailed as Newfoundland’s native son, the onetime anti-Confederationist “come home for good.”

Deny it though he will, most Newfoundlanders assume Peckford was trying to catch the Liberals with their provincial pants down when, only three days after the federal election and less than five weeks before a scheduled Grit leadership convention, he called an election “to confirm our mandate. This must be done before we proceed with negotiations on some very important issues, such as the question of jurisdiction over off-shore resources, and over the fishery.” Some speculate, as well, that Peckford was trying to beat Jamieson back to Newfoundland, since rumors of his possible return had been growing. Jamieson himself practically

draft-Jamieson movement launched two days later. Peckford followed the next day with his election call and William Rowe, two days after that, with his resignation as provincial Liberal leader. With all the gallantry befitting a party leader whose stewardship had been placed on the line after he admitted lying about leaking confidential police documents to the media, Rowe told reporters: “It was completely in my own hands as to whether I would take this action or not and, after much thought, I have now done so willingly and with a glad heart.” The St. John’s rumor-mill version of the affair is that Rowe was hurriedly axed by a provincial party executive worried about Liberal election chances with an openly divided party. Then Jamieson was pressured into making an immediate switch, with help from federal party organizers anxious for any possible election win to draw

with a scheme urging economic ties with the United States. To Jamieson it meant economic salvation for Newfoundland without, supposedly, loss of political independence. Jamieson and Stirling worked long and hard—and heroically. Once they rented the Orange Lodge in Spaniard’s Bay and were lucky to escape with their lives, after encountering a crowd of staunch confederationists inside and a larger, more unruly crowd surrounding their car outside as they fled. It took some doing to find the St. John’s mother of 12 who went on radio to explain defiantly how she would prefer a good job for her husband rather than Canadian handouts. More testimonials poured in, however, and Jamieson took to the airwaves

every night with almost evangelical reports on the anti-confederation battle, replete with telegrams and letters. “Many who spoke out against Confederation were the product of a fiercely proud and independent tradition,” Jamieson wrote later. “They were members of ancient Newfoundland families who had made Water Street an important North American trading centre years before Montreal was founded and while New York was still a swamp. Some had forbears who had fought valiantly to win responsible government for Newfoundland. They felt to support Confederation would be to betray their heritage.”

Many such Newfoundlanders donned mourning when the former Dominion joined Confederation on March 31,1949, but within weeks Jamieson and Stirling were aboard Joey Smallwood’s bandwagon in the first provincial election, which was to launch his 23-year Liberal reign. A year later the pair were awarded permission to set up a new private radio station, CJON. Additional licences gave them a broadcasting empire which flourished until two years ago when they broke it up, Stirling keeping the TV and FM radio portions and Jamieson’s brother, Colin, managing the AM radio part of it for him in a blind trust. Meanwhile Jamieson, although he came from an old Tory family (his father, Charles, edited the weekly Tory Watchman), took the Liberal plunge to win a federal byelection in BurinBurgeo in 1966 and was off to launch a new career in Ottawa.

During his 13 years in Parliament he

held five ministerial posts and became famous for his devastating Newfoundland wit (asked once what the party would do for a leader if a bus ran over Pierre Trudeau, he responded: “Elect the bus driver”). Now Jamieson has “come home to accept your invitation to build a better Newfoundland,” and he started to deliver in a style reminiscent of the old man of Newfoundland liberalism, Joey Smallwood himself. Arriving in the province by plane last Tuesday, he stopped in Stephenville, Gander and St. John’s. After a six-hour caucus meeting on Wednesday, he held a press conference at his home in Swift Current. Reporters headed for the Burin Peninsula, most of them not asking themselves if they would have made the same kind of four-hour drive for one of Premier Peckford’s news conferences.

Stressing jobs, integrity and identity, Jamieson unveiled a program including a three-year freeze on electricity rates, pharmacare for the chronically ill, elimination of school tax inequities and—one of Joey’s failsafe election promises—more paved roads. Jamieson said he hasn’t had time to look into the financial implications yet, but doesn’t believe there would be anything wrong with borrowing more money to pay for all his goodies—unmindful that for two years provincial Liberals have been hammering the Tory government for plunging the province deeper and deeper into debt.

With the campaigning only just begun—and having only two weeks to

go—Peckford’s sudden election call to catch the Liberals off base seems to have backfired. In the less than three months since he took over the Tory leadership he has scarcely won firm control of his own party and now he faces a once-faltering Liberal opposition suddenly electrified by a surprise champion, one of the wiliest political campaigners in the land. At least the two leaders do have one common concern to ponder. Although provincial standing at dissolution was Conservatives 31, Liberals 20, and NDP 0, in last month’s federal election the New Democrats got more Newfoundland votes than did Tory candidates. And last week the “third force” was flying in organizational help from Ottawa to make a determined if ambitious bid to win the balance of power in the next Newfoundland Assembly.^