THE LIBERAL WIN IN NEWFOUNDLAND TOPPLED A DYNASTY AND IGNITED A ROW WITH OTTAWA OVER MEECH LAKE
Seventeen years ago when he lost a provincial election to the Conservatives, Liberal Premier Joseph Smallwood—Newfoundland’s Father of Confederation—observed that the tide that goes out always returns. Last Thursday—a day of snow, fog, drizzle and gale warnings for fishermen at sea—Newfoundland held its 13th provincial election since entering Confederation in 1949, and the tide swept the Conservatives out of office for the first time since the Smallwood era and returned a majority Liberal government. Premier-elect Clyde Kirby Wells, 51, immediately faced two challenges: finding a seat of his own in the House of Assembly and managing a roiling dispute with the federal and Quebec governments over the new premier’s opposition to the Meech Lake constitutional accord.
While the outspoken Wells took to the national airwaves after the election proclaiming that he has no quarrel with the concept of “a distinct society” for Quebec as defined in the accord, he insisted that he opposes conferring “special status” on that province which is not granted to the others. In a direct threat to the Meech accord signed by Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and 10 premiers in June, 1987—and passed by Newfoundland’s Assembly one year later—Wells declared, “I will not shirk at doing whatever is necessary to protect the long-term interests of this province—including withdrawing the approval if that becomes necessary.” That stand prompted rebukes in Ottawa from federal ministers in the government of Brian Mulroney, a bitter response from Quebec Premier Robert Bourassa and a veiled threat from fellow Newfoundlander John Crosbie, federal minister of trade, who warned Wells that he should “play ball” with Ottawa. Wells responded that if that was a threat to punish Newfoundland economically, “I can tell Mr. Crosbie that he is in for a surprise.”
At home the Newfoundland Liberals increased their representation in the assembly to 30 seats from 14 while the Conservatives fell to 22 from 34 and the New Democrats even lost the two ridings that they held going into the election. For the Liberals, there was one dark cloud: Wells’s failure to gain a seat in his own Corner Brook riding of Humber East, where he lost by 101 votes to Lynn Verge, the Conservative deputy premier. But in his sober and subdued victory speech in the Comer Brook Masonic hall, corporation lawyer Wells said that one of the first items on his agenda would be to ask one of the 30 victorious Liberals to give up a seat so that he could try for a seat in a byelection. Then, said Wells, he could get on with the business at hand—building “a happier, healthier, more prosperous province where our people can work without having to leave. We will leave no stone unturned to give our people the kind of future they want.” Indeed, the morning after his stunning victory on April 20, Wells told a Corner Brook news conference that he would select a cabinet within two weeks and probably convene the house of assembly in June.
Wells’s party now becomes the fifth Liberal provincial government to be elected in the six provinces east of Manitoba since the Conservatives gained power in Ottawa in 1984. (The lone eastern Tory premier is Nova Scotia’s John Buchanan.) New Brunswick’s Liberal Premier Frank McKenna, who along with Manitoba’s Tory Premier Gary Filmon opposes the Meech Lake accord, said that he welcomed Wells’s victory because “he shares a lot of our concerns.” But in Ottawa a visibly emotional Transport Minister Benoît Bouchard said that Quebecers would be “outraged if we don’t go through with Meech Lake.” Environment Minister Lucien Bouchard, a trusted lieutenant of Mulroney’s, warned that there would be “extremely grave political consequences” if there is a retreat on Meech Lake. Quebec Premier Robert Bourassa suggested that Newfoundland may pay an economic price if it reneges on Meech Lake: it would “normally be easier” for Newfoundland to negotiate hydroelectric and other deals with Quebec in a climate of “cordial relations,” the premier said pointedly.
In Newfoundland, the biggest loser was Thomas Rideout, the 40-year-old former teacher and fisherman’s son who had been premier for barely a month after having been elected to succeed Brian Peckford. Although Rideout pledged in a graceful and emotional speech acknowledging his defeat that he would remain as leader of the opposition, he may be remembered as only a footnote to history. Analysts said that Rideout may have been a victim of his own inexperience and, as well, of comparisons to his adept and fiery predecessor. Indeed, Peckford told reporters that Rideout had run a poor campaign.
But much of Rideout’s fate was beyond his control: a series of announcements from Ottawa did little to bolster his fortunes. Ottawa declared that French fishermen would be given access to cod off Newfoundland’s east coast in exchange for settling a jurisdictional dispute between Canada and France; then came another delay in the signing of the $8.5-billion Hibernia oil deal; and finally, the federal Tories announced during the campaign that changes in the unemployment insurance program, which would affect Newfoundland’s many seasonal workers adversely, were soon to be introduced. But Rideout’s efforts seemed to lack direction until the final week. The premier delivered as many as eight speeches a day as he travelled the province by helicopter, light aircraft, car and boat. And a Tory poll had shown the party as much as 11 points ahead in the week before the campaign ended. But Rideout’s many promises of new sports arenas and other forms of government largess—as well as his often-repeated claim that his government represented Newfoundland’s future—obviously failed to win enough hearts and minds. Memorial University political scientist Peter Boswell said that Rideout was “a nice guy” lacking “the royal jelly that might capture the imagination.”
Peckford, who retired in March after a controversial decade as premier, kept his silence during the campaign. But as a commentator for the province’s private NTV television network on election night, he said that he would have conducted the election battle differently. Said Peckford: “You have got to establish a certain agenda. It was a gentleman’s election—they tried to de-Peckfordize this thing.”
Memorial’s Boswell said that until the campaign began, Clyde Wells “had seemed to be asleep. You never heard from him. Well, the answer is that he was out organizing.” Boswell, a former Tory supporter in provincial elections, said that he voted Liberal. “Wells,” he said, “has the aptitude and experience to address some of Newfoundland’s dilemmas.”
Indeed, the dilemmas facing Wells are considerable. Newfoundland and Labrador have an unemployment rate of more than 16 per cent, the highest sales tax in the country and an economy largely dependent on transfer payments and subsidies that many feared would be jeopardized by this week’s federal budget. In addition to the troublesome Hibernia project and the dispute with France, federal fisheries scientists have warned that stocks of cod off Newfoundland’s waters may be only half their estimated size. And one of Wells’s priorities—and a recurring theme of his campaign—is the need to provide opportunities at home for the young Newfoundlanders forced to leave the province to find work in other parts of Canada. Wells’s own son, Mark, an engineer now working in the Ottawa area, returned for the election and told an interviewer he did not envisage an early move home. “I would love to come home to Newfoundland, but it’s not that easy,” he said. “You can’t change an economy overnight.”
Wells has indicated that he has more immediate tasks at hand. During the campaign, he said that he was not seeking any quick fixes, megaprojects or large-scale industrialization to strengthen the province’s ailing economy. Instead, he said, a Liberal government would attempt to aid small-and medium-sized business and create greater economic well-being for the 60 per cent of the population that still lives in rural areas. He said that his promised upgrading of health, education and other services would cost $42 million and that there would be additional capital spending to expand the forest products industry as well as improve water and sewer services. He said that he would save $14.5 million by reducing government departments to 15 from Rideout’s 19 ministries.
Most political insiders describe Wells as a conservative among Liberals who is likely to be both fiscally prudent and a shrewd negotiator. His first discussions with Ottawa may, in fact, involve the Meech Lake accord. He has also vowed to seek improvement of the royalty share of the Hibernia development and has argued that the federal government must help pay for the upkeep of Newfoundland’s portion of the Trans-Canada Highway, which is carrying more traffic since the government closed the province’s railway last year.
But it was Wells’s postelection declarations about Meech Lake that provoked the greatest reaction in Ottawa. Senator Lowell Murray, minister for federal-provincial relations, said that he hoped Wells would reflect “long and hard” before rescinding Newfoundland’s support for Meech Lake. Said Murray: “It would create a very bad precedent if a province can renege on a constitutional resolution that it has already passed.” In response to Wells’s intimation that he might want to renegotiate portions of the agreement, Murray said, “It’s quite impossible.”
Deputy Prime Minister Donald Mazankowski commented that the Meech accord “has been ratifed by the Newfoundland legislature and it’s a decision for him as to whether he wants to turn that over. Perhaps on reflection he may decide not to.” And Transport Minister Bouchard spoke for many francophone politicians in Ottawa facing a threat to Meech Lake: “What the hell are we doing here? Is this the way to build Canada?”
Federal Liberals such as Ottawa-area MP Jean-Robert Gauthier, a Meech Lake supporter, said that it was up to Wells “to come clean about what he wants. It’s his game.” But Toronto Liberal MP Robert Kaplan, another Meech supporter, had a different perspective on the accord’s prospects. “As far as I can see, the federal government and the government of Quebec don't really care anymore whether Meech wins or loses,” he said, “because either way they have an answer. If it goes through, they are both heroes. If it doesn’t go through, Mulroney can blame the Liberals.”
But the hero of the moment, at least among Newfoundland Liberals if not those on Parliament Hill, was Wells. The second of nine children of a Newfoundland railway freight handler, he put himself through law school by taking jobs in construction and as a plumber’s assistant. In 1962, he married Eleanor Bishop, a native of Stephenville Crossing (they have three grown-up children: Mark, Heidi and David). In 1962, he graduated from Halifax’s Dalhousie University law school and served briefly in the Canadian Armed Forces in the army’s legal arm, the Judge Advocate-General’s office. In 1964, he began practising law in Comer Brook, later specializing in corporate law. His abilities as a lawyer attracted the attention of Smallwood, who promised him a cabinet post if he ran for the Liberals. In 1966, Wells won Humber East—the same district that he lost by 101 votes last week.
Smallwood made him minister of labor at age 28, the youngest Newfoundland cabinet minister to that point, but he resigned two years later when he disagreed with the extent of government loan guarantees to the Come-by-Chance oil refinery, which went bankrupt in 1976 but reopened 11 years later. Wells called himself an independent Liberal until he left the legislature in 1971 and resumed his law practice in Corner Brook. Elected leader of the Liberal party in 1987 when he replaced Leo Barry, Wells concentrated on reorganizing the party’s base. He came under fire in the past year for accepting a $50,000 annual payment from the party to supplement his $33,888 salary as leader of the opposition. He said earlier this year that he would give up that supplement if elected premier.
Wells also incurred criticism for his manner, frequently described as stiff and unemotional. Early in the provincial election campaign, he conceded that “quite a few people felt I was too quiet as a leader and they expected a lot of ranting and roaring all the time.” But, he added, there had been “deliberate decision” to mute political rhetoric until the campaign had actually begun. For Newfoundland’s new premier-elect, it was a strategy good enough to bring the tide back in.
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