From political novice to opposition firebrand to minister of the Crown, Brian Tobin has never stood accused of being timid and shy. The Newfoundland MP and fisheries minister who has led Canada to the brink of a fish war with the European Union has been criticized as brash, slick—even offensive at times—but in the 15 years he has been on Parliament Hill, Tobin has made a mark for himself that tells of both his ambition and his ability.
To those who watched him last week explain with pointer and charts how he was going to get tough with the Spanish fishing fleet, and subsequently explain exactly how he did get tough with the Spanish fishing fleet, his most obvious skill is his ability to make a point. “The Spanish fleet is not particularly beloved anywhere it operates,” he noted, while accusing fleet owners—but pointedly not the fishermen—of ravaging fish stocks wherever they roam. Back home in the riding of Humber/St. Barbe/Baie Verte, on Newfoundland’s west coast, it’s called the gift of the gab, a skill well-nourished by the island’s long oral tradition. He is, say senior Liberals, one of the best communicators in Jean Chrétien’s cabinet.
Tobin’s abilities have propelled him close to but not yet into the inner circle of Liberal politics. For while insiders say he has im-
pressed them with his handling of the affair last week, he was not given the latitude that a more senior minister might have been given. And yet Tobin was a good enough politician to realize his limitations and not strain at the leash.
Tobin, who turned 40 last October, was first elected in 1980 at age 25, and was quickly spotted by Pierre Trudeau’s talent scouts as a valuable rookie. He was given a coveted spot on the joint Senate-Commons constitution committee and was appointed parliamentary secretary to two fisheries ministers. Even as a freshman MP, Tobin had no lack of self-confidence. When Trudeau was looking for a Newfoundland cabinet minister in the early 1980s, Tobin was publicly aghast that anyone might think him too inexperienced.
But it was his time in Opposition that brought Tobin, a former television news anchor and reporter at CJON in St. John’s, to national prominence as a member of the Liberal “rat pack,” along with now-Deputy Prime Minister Sheila Copps. Tobin and the others drove Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and his Tories to distraction. Kicked out of the Commons for a day in 1985 for calling Mulroney a liar, Tobin also derailed plans by then-transport minister Don Mazankowski to overhaul legislation governing shipping
in Canada and to pass on the costs of ice-break|ing and other services ¡to those who benefited from them. The battle, waged from 1985 to 1986, showed that he had not just a quick tongue, but
also persistence and an ability to master the details of policy and legislation.
Those who know him well say there is a subtlety about Tobin that becomes apparent when he talks about the importance of his family (he and his wife, Jodean, a nurse, have three children), and his regret that he never learned to play music. “One of the greatest gifts you can give to yourself is the ability to make music,” he told Maclean’s. “I envy those who can do that—just have some quiet time and make some music.”
With his quick sense of humor, an everready quote, and media savvy learned in the trade, Tobin was an Opposition natural. But what has caused surprise in Ottawa has been the easy way he has adapted to government. Still, the ease of the shift did not surprise him. He had become frustrated, he says, with the one-dimensional politics of criticism and wanted a chance to solve problems. He has grown in the office, colleagues say—and his always-impressive political skills have improved. There are those in Ottawa who see echoes of Jean Chrétien, and Chrétien himself is said to have a lot of time for his fisheries minister—even to the point of letting him take the country to the brink of an armed showdown.
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