Election 2000

Captain Canada Battles at Home

Brian Tobin fights for Atlantic Canada—and his own riding

John DeMont November 27 2000
Election 2000

Captain Canada Battles at Home

Brian Tobin fights for Atlantic Canada—and his own riding

John DeMont November 27 2000

Captain Canada Battles at Home

Election 2000

Brian Tobin fights for Atlantic Canada—and his own riding

John DeMont

Brian Tobin tried to stay on-message during last week’s Bonavista-Trinity-Conception all-candidates debate. But his campaign drumbeat—that the riding needs to be represented by a government cabinet minister rather than a powerless member of the opposition—was sometimes lost in the din. Opponents tore into Tobin for sitting in the federal Liberal cabinet as it oversaw the mid1990s spending cutbacks that devastated the area. They hammered him for failing to forge the big energy deals he promised as premier of

Newfoundland. Then they gang-tackled him for breaking his vow to stay as premier for a full four-year term

—by running federally less than two years after his Liberals won a second provincial mandate in February, 1999. Throughout, Tobin counterpunched, at one point arguing that the Canadian Alliance party had “scared me out of the premiers chair and back into federal politics.” But the line was greeted by collective groans in the audience. And when the debate ended, the ex-premier, looking testy, shook hands with his other opponents, but appeared to ignore Conservative candidate Jim Morgan, his loudest critic throughout the 90-minute event.

It will take more than a few well-placed barbs to bring

down the Liberals’ star in the East. With some polls last week showing the Grits with more than 50-per-cent support in Atlantic Canada, the party’s internal polling gives Tobin, who was appointed federal minister of industry just before the October election call, a 39-percentagepoint lead over Morgan. So confident is the front-runner that he has been spending up to three days a week outside his riding, campaigning for Liberal candidates in hody contested seats—mostly in Atlantic Canada. But last week, Tobin, who earned the nickname “Captain Canada” for his 1995 fight against foreign overfishing, may have finally realized he has a fight on his hands at home. “Tobins riding,” says Stephen Tomblin, a political science professor at Memorial University in St.John’s, “could surprise people.” Earlier this month, Tobin’s campaign seemed to hit a bump when Newfoundland Energy Minister Paul Dicks revealed that a much-ballyhooed deal with Quebec to develop a $ 12-billion hydroelectric project on the Lower Churchill River in Labrador had collapsed eight months ago—without a word from the provincial government. Tobin managed to limit the damage, but other criticisms have dogged him throughout the race, including allegations that he stayed on as premier just long enough—20 months—to lock in a provincial pension to go with his $52,000-a-year pension for his previous 16 years in the blouse of Commons. The Grit strongman, who is not eligible for his provincial benefits until 2004 and saw his federal pension end the moment he rejoined the federal cabinet, dismisses those allegations as partisan mischief.

But there is some local anger over his decision to return to federal politics. Carl Clouter, a 56-year-old pilot from East-

port, Nfld., is so upset about the premier jumping ship he has been buying air time during the campaign urging voters not to support the Liberals. “Tobin reneged,” says the longtime Grit. “Now he wants the very people he let down to endorse him.” More than that, Liberal strategists have been counting on Tobin to help paint the region red again. The Grits, who lost big in Atlantic Canada in 1997, are confident they can regain some ground. Last week, Tobin was in New Brunswick; this week, he heads for Cape Breton, where some Liberals hope a little campaigning from one of their brighter stars will put more of their candidates over the top. Back in Bonavista-TrinityConception, his opponents are just as happy to see him hit the campaign trail—but for a different reason. ED