At moments during last week’s Liberal nomination meeting in the provincial riding of Humber East in Corner Brook, Nfld., the spirit of the legendary Joey Smallwood seemed to permeate the room. At the microphone, a pumped-up Brian Tobin, in a pugilist’s stance, was in full rhetorical flight. The overflow partisan crowd interrupted him with repeated applause—not to be polite, or just because they agreed with the sentiments, but out of sheer delight at the entertainment on offer at the podium. The four candidates running for the nomination, having already shown respectable oratory skills, watched raptly as Newfoundland’s newly minted premier gathered steam and described them with this flourish: “Never in any district in the Humber area, or any district in Newfoundland and Labrador; for that matter any district in North America or nominating meeting I’ve ever attended, have we ever seen four such fantastic candidates on the stage at the same time.”
The Liberal faithful had gathered to select an opponent for Newfoundland Conservative leader Lynn Verge, a 45-year-old Corner Brook lawyer who took over the party helm last June. A former minister in the government of Brian Peckford,
Verge was thought to be gaining in popularity on former premier Clyde Wells and his Liberals. But she was thrown off balance by the fast tumble of events in the past month: the year-end resignation of Wells; the speedy acclamation of native son and former federal fisheries minster Brian Tobin as party leader and premier; and, finally, Tobin’s snap call last week for an election on Feb. 22—the first winter provincial vote in Newfoundland since it entered Confederation.
The reinvigorated Liberals now want more than just a good showing against Verge— they want her political head. Poetics are important in Newfoundland, and Verge, after all, spoiled Wells’s 1989 election victory by handing him personal defeat in Humber East, forcing him to call and win a byelection in the nearby Bay of Islands riding.
On this evening, Tobin spoke without notes, conjuring up emotion from the early
Liberal glory days—and carefully evoking the Smallwood pedigree. “I suspect if a former member from this area were here, one who goes back to the great Confederation debates of 1948, he’d be saying right now: There’s a hum, on the Humber.’ ” Tobin’s imitation elicited the desired response, and so he continued: “He’d be telling us that the Humber’s running red, and he’d be saying as goes the Humber, so goes the province. There’s no doubt in my mind that the Hum-
ber and Humber East is going red, Liberal red in this election in 1996.” More applause.
Ironically, though, Tobin is campaigning not just against Verge’s Tories in this election, but against the Smallwood legacy as well. Smallwood, who ruled the Rock with an iron hand from its entry into Confederation in 1949 until 1972, bungled much of the promised wealth from Newfoundland’s huge mineral deposits, and signed the fateful 1969 Churchill Falls hydroelectric contract that gave Quebec unfettered access to Newfoundland hydro at bargain-basement rates for 40 years. Now, with the ever-expanding estimates of the massive nickel and copper deposit in Voisey’s Bay, and with promising new oil developments, Newfoundlanders appear once again poised to reap their resource birthright. Accordingly, Tobin’s campaign theme plays on two traits ingrained in the Newfoundland psyche: fierce pride and a
deep paranoia grounded in past events. Reminding people of his successful battle last year against Spanish fleets fishing off the Grand Banks, his message is simple: trust me, I won’t botch this.
At least in the campaign’s early days, the Conservatives seemed to play into Tobin’s strategy. On Wednesday, for example, a front-page story in The Evening Telegram cited an unnamed source suggesting that partners in the Hibernia offshore oil project had already decided that a Nova Scotia site had been selected as the transshipment point for Hibernia’s crude—a move that would have cost Newfoundlanders 30 jobs and potential tax revenues. The paper said the announcement had been stalled because of the election, prompting Verge to suggest a coverup was in the works.
Between scheduled campaign events that
morning, Tobin worked the phones feverishly before his first CBC radio interview of the day. He then used that interview to accuse Verge of showing “the first signs of panic.” The calls continued and by the time television reporters caught up with the campaign bus for an afternoon scrum, Tobin’s denunciations had grown even sharper. “The suggestion that a decision has been made on the transshipment facility and that it has been communicated to government is false,” said Tobin. He declared unequivocally that the facility would be built in Newfoundland, and jauntily threatened to “confiscate” Hibernia’s gravity-based structure if the partners tried otherwise (a spokesman for the partners later said they had no such intentions).
At dissolution, Tobin’s Liberals held 35 seats, compared with 15 for the Conservatives and one for the New Democratic Party. Verge suffered an early setback when two
Tory MHAs—both former cabinet ministers—deserted ship. Bill Matthews, head of the party’s election readiness committee, quit politics, while Rick Woodford—in a time-honored Newfoundland tradition— crossed over to the Liberals. As Woodford told Maclean’s last week: “It really started when people in my own district started approaching me asking questions about whether the party was going anywhere.”
Verge, however, is a seasoned and combative campaigner. Last week, she crashed a Tobin appearance at the early morning shift change at Corner Brook Pulp and Paper, vying in sub-zero darkness for handshakes and support from workers driving by in their toasty-warm four-by-fours. She has demanded a series of debates (Tobin plans just one) and even more audaciously challenged the premier to run against her in Humber East (Tobin will instead contest Wells’s old seat).
Taking his cue from the success of the federal liberals in 1993, Tobin last week released a “red book” of election promises. Stephen Tomblin, a political science professor at Memorial University, said the platform marks a departure from Wells, who had tried to wean the province from its dependence on primary resources. Instead, the red book places more emphasis on the traditional side of the Newfoundland economy, with its promised creation of a new department for rural economic development, and a separate ministry of fisheries and aquaculture. At the same time, Tobin has already shown a penchant for doling out election goodies, including a $5-million centre for forestry studies in Corner Brook.
Not to be outdone, Verge is promising an ambitious program to provide retraining for fish plant workers. The plan would cost an estimated $25 million annually.
Despite the hardships in the fishing sector, Tobin called the election at a time when the Newfoundland economy is showing some signs of recovery. The province’s unemployment rate stood at 16.9 per cent in December, down from 21.1 per cent a year earlier. None of that, however, makes it any easier for Tobin to campaign in places like La Scie, on the Baie Verte peninsula in northeastern Newfoundland, where he was greeted last week with a much more muted response. The fish plant in La Scie—which at its peak employed 600—is idle, and Tobin arrived with little hope for any quick change in its status. The crowd remained subdued despite the new premier’s unfailing knack for mentioning his crusade last year against foreign overfishing.
“I wish someone would come out and say we’re not talking about ’99, we’re talking 2010,” local fisherman Ray Wimbleton said of the outlook for reopening the devastated cod fishery. “Then the young people would face up to it and really start retraining.” For Tobin, a master of political rhetoric, it was a poignant plea for a little frank talk.
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