Brian Peckford, the shrewd but erratic premier of Newfoundland, has governed “the rock” for the past five years as a champion of the little man—the outport “b’y” with a social conscience. But a series of political crises has both blackened Peckford’s populist image and seriously challenged the direction of his government. Despite the promise of offshore oil riches and an impending agreement with Ottawa on revenue-sharing, Newfoundland’s Tory government has been besieged by bitter labor unrest and a nagging unemployment rate of 21 per cent. Predictably, the premier’s toughest critics have not arisen in the house of assembly, where the opposition holds only nine of 52 seats, but in a powerful extraparliamentary movement composed of trade unionists and social activists. In a recent interview with Maclean’s, a relaxed and philosophical Peckford admitted, “The past couple of months have been the roughest damn time of them all.”
According to both government critics and supporters, Peckford’s troubles are not over. In recent weeks the target of much of the opposition has been two controversial labor bills: Bill 59, which limits the right to strike in essential services such as health care; and Bill 37, an amendment to the province’s Labor Standards Act of 1978. The first act prompted Newfoundland’s unions to invite the Geneva-based International Labor Organization (ILO) to study allegations that the legislation restricts workers’ “freedom of association”; the second undermined the government’s credibility and swelled the ranks of its critics.
Since the government introduced Bill 37 last November it has provoked an unprecedented wave of criticism from the province’s labor leaders, Liberal MLAs and opinion makers. Even the province’s largest daily newspaper, the St. John’s Evening Telegram denounced the legislation as a repudiation of “the principles of British justice.” The bill, which retroactively shortens the notice period that employers must give their workers before temporary layoffs, would save mining, forestry and fish plants about $26 million owing in back pay claims arising from illegal layoff procedures. Declared Rev. Desmond McGrath, a Roman Catholic priest and prominent labor organizer: “This is a bad bill by a bad government that will hurt Newfoundlanders badly. The people will not forgive or forget this.”
The furore over Bill 37 for the first time has united many of Peckford’s principal opponents. Last October the province’s most prominent labor leaders, including McGrath and Richard Cashin, president of the 22,000-member United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, Local 1252, joined
together to form a new group called the Coalition for Equality. Spawned by two bitter strikes—now in their sixth month—by 850 telephone workers and 750 trawlermen, the coalition has become a strident voice for Newfoundland’s working class. The group’s broadly based membership, which includes the Council on the Status of Women and the Social Action Committee of the Roman Catholic Church, has made it a particularly potent force. But while coalition leaders have loudly condemned Peckford as a political chameleon and “champion of the bosses,” they have also criticized the Liberals, who hold only eight of 52 assembly seats, as an insignificant alterna-
tive. Instead, both Cashin and McGrath are urging their followers to support the NDP, which gained its very first seat in the house of assembly after a September byelection.
Liberal Leader Leo Barry, who once served as Peckford’s energy minister, has responded to the coalition’s attacks by charging that its leaders are out of touch with rank-and-file trade unionists. Charged Barry: “If they want to find a sure way to re-elect this government, they will do it by splitting the opposition vote.” Indeed, although Peckford does not have to call an election until 1987, he has already suggested he might go to the polls in the spring if his party’s popularity, now at a record low, improves.
Peckford, one of Canada’s most astute politicians, has already taken steps to outflank his political foes. He has praised the coalition as “our most serious alternate voice” and defused opposition to Bill 37 by saying that he found the measure “both abhorrent and repugnant in many respects.” Nevertheless, Peckford argues that the bill represented Newfoundland’s only chance to keep and attract jobs. One major firm, the Montrealbased Kruger Inc., even refused to ratify a $200-million deal to modernize and take control of the Bowater pulp and paper mill in Corner Brook until the government finally invoked closure on Dec. 17 to pass the legislation. Kruger, like many companies, didn’t want to assume liability for scores of mass layoffs in the 1980s that were technically illegal under the old legislation.
But Peckford’s critics say that the “autocratic” manner in which he dealt with both labor bills typifies the aloof
of his government. While Labor Minister Jerome Dinn has no objections to an ILO visit, Peckford says tartly that if the world body merely wants to read Bill 59, it can get a copy without coming to Newfoundland. And it took weeks of provincewide protests against Bill 37 before the premier finally consented to hold a meeting last December with Newfoundland’s 50,000member labor federation. It was the first such meeting
and business-minded style
in four years, and the results were inconclusive. Charged McGrath: “We have government by edict here.”
Peckford’s metamorphosis from courageous populist to an embattled and increasingly defensive premier has been a swift one. He first earned his populist label as minister of mines and energy in 1976 when he singlehandedly forced reluctant oil companies to give hiring preferences to Newfoundlanders. But since federal-provincial negotiations on offshore resources faltered in 1983 (they have since been resolved under the new Brian Mulroney administration), Peckford’s mood has soured and grown increasingly bitter. During a federal election bus tour of the province last August, the premier was stopped by a roadblock set up by striking trawlermen outside of Marystown, 175 km southwest of St. John’s. When he tried to address the crowd, he was shouted down by the strikers, whom he has repeatedly refused to meet. Later, Peckford publicly accused CBC television of having known about the protest in advance and of covering it solely to place him in a bad light.
Even veteran observers do not fully understand Peckford’s new brand of austere politics. Of the dispute over Bill 37, Mark Graesser, a Memorial Univerisity associate political science professor, said: “He has, if anything, a narrower base of people for decision-making than did [former premier] Joey Smallwood. Perhaps power has expanded his streak of confidence into a fault, so that it’s not a question of power corrupting but of power becoming dysfunctional in that the leadership is no longer efficient.”
In addition to the scrappy Coalition for Equality, Peckford must also contend with a disenchanted electorate. A recent public opinion poll, conducted by an independent Halifax firm, found that out of 272 people interviewed in 40 ridings, 48 per cent favored the Liberals, 42 per cent the Tories and nine per cent the NDP. In the last election the PCs captured 60 per cent of the popular vote and 44 seats. Despite questions raised about the poll’s accuracy, Peckford conceded a loss in popularity. Added the premier: “But there is a difference between saying you are angry with someone and actually voting for someone else once you start to consider the alternatives.”
The Newfoundland premier is clearly pinning his political future on the signing of a lucrative offshore oil revenue agreement with Ottawa this year. But likely spin-offs, such as major investment projects, will not ease the province’s $60-million deficit or shorten unemployment lines for a long time to come. Yet, given Peckford’s growing political isolation, he has, for the time being, no other cards to play. f¡?
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