Newfoundland Premier Clyde Wells has built a political career out of taking tough, controversial stands. He became a national figure in 1990 by refusing to allow the Newfoundland House of Assembly to vote on the Meech Fake constitutional accord. And last May, his Fiberal party won a second majority government after Wells faced down the province’s powerful teachers’ and public-sector unions, which had vowed to topple the Fiberals for reducing contributions to their pension
funds. Wells plainly knew that he might have yet another battle on his hands last fall when he announced plans to sell the provincial power company, Newfoundland and Fabrador Hydro, to the private sector. But what the strong-willed premier and his advisers did not anticipate was that the decision would spark the biggest crisis in his government’s fiveyear history.
The proposed Hydro sell-off is certain to dominate the legislature’s latest sitting, which began last week. Under the government’s privatization bill, shares in the public utility will be sold to individuals and businesses across Canada. Wells has promised that the resulting revenues—estimated to be at least $500 million—would help reduce the province’s $196.7-million deficit, saving Newfoundland $30 million annually in interest payments. But observers say that the premier underestimated the symbolic
importance of the power company to Newfoundlanders who feel they have precious little to call their own following the collapse of the Atlantic fishery. ‘Wells became Captain Newfoundland during Meech Fake,” says Peter Fenwick, a columnist for The Evening Telegram. “Now, the nationalism card is being used against him.”
Leading the resistance is a diverse group called Take Back the Power, which includes the ex-chairman of Newfoundland Hydro, Cyril Abery, members of the provincial Reform party and even St. John’s-based comedian Greg Malone, of CODCO television fame. And despite a sweeping government public relations campaign, a poll conducted in late March on behalf of the antistrike group indicated that 63 per cent of Newfoundlanders oppose the sale. A separate poll by Corporate Research Associates of Halifax showed that Wells’s personal approval rating had slipped from 69 per cent in November to 52 per cent in March. Observes Stephen Tomblin, a political science professor at Memorial University in St. John’s: “Nobody knows how far this could go.”
Wells did little to help his cause when he acknowledged in late March that his reasons for selling the utility have less to do with saving money than with a desire to break the 1969 Churchill Falls contract, which guarantees cheap Labrador power to Hydro Quebec well into the next century. Although Newfoundland has lost two court challenges against the deal, Wells maintains that a private company could argue successfully for scrapping it.
That admission has hurt Wells’s reputation as a plain dealer at a time when the fishery crisis has plunged Newfoundlanders into despair and publicsector unions are threatening to strike. In the months ahead, Wells’s vaunted iron will could be tested as never before.
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