11 May 2007

The Other Point of View, 1984

Premier called 'seriously misguided'
Michael Harris
The Globe and Mail
June 4, 1984

ST. JOHN'S - The top job of the Newfoundland Liberal Party, once a ticket to oblivion, is attracting some powerful personalities and generating the strongest criticism to date of the five-year-old Conservative Government of Premier Brian Peckford.

''Look, people in other parts of the country don't know but we won't be taking out our swords next and lopping off their ears,'' Clyde Wells, a perennial if reluctant darling of Liberals here, said in an interview. ''Given the attitude of this Government, any business would have to be out of its mind to want to come here.'' Mr. Wells, the 46-year-old St. John's lawyer who argued the federal Government's case on offshore jurisdiction and who also successfully prosecuted federal Liberal MP Roger Simmons for tax evasion, confirmed he has been approached to enter the race for the provincial Liberal leadership slated for this October. ''I can tell you there has been a lot of pressure from a number of directions. I'm not working for it, but the door is open a crack.''

Mr. Wells earned his political spurs in the 1960s as one of the bright young men of the Liberal government of Joseph Smallwood. Appointed to the cabinet at 28, Mr. Wells was labor minister and then minister without portfolio until 1970. He quit the cabinet - along with fellow minister and now federal Tory MP John Crosbie - after refusing to approve $5-million in bridge financing to John Shaheen for the construction of the Come-By- Chance oil refinery. ''I'm not soured on politics because of those years," Mr. Wells said recently. "I still believe politics can be principled,
honest and straightforward.'' Describing Mr. Peckford as well-intentioned but ''seriously misguided,'' Mr. Wells said that Newfoundland has been economically devastated by the attitudes of the provincial Government.

Despite Newfoundland's failure to win control of offshore resources from Ottawa, "I don't think very much has been lost. . . . In the long run, Newfoundland will get the same as other provinces under the federal system we have - no more, no less." But Newfoundland's abortive effort to get out of an agreement under which Quebec gets Labrador electricity at bargain prices "has seriously impaired our ability to properly solve that problem. It has also made us look like a banana republic.'' Mr. Wells said the Peckford Government's Water Reversion Act, passed in 1980 and recently struck down by the Supreme Court of Canada, was an attempt to expropriate all the assets of the Upper Churchill power installation without compensating Hydro-Quebec, a partner in the megaproject which nets Quebec $800-million a year.

The Government is within its rights to use expropriation in the public interest, Mr. Wells said, "but you have to pay just compensation." The philosophy of the Peckford Government has created a serious rift between Newfoundlanders and other Canadians, he said. ''Peckford has set Confederation back 20 years in the attitudes he has tried to foster here. . . . He talks about being oppressed by Ottawa and then brands anyone who criticizes him in Newfoundland unpatriotic.''

Almost as coy as Mr. Wells about his leadership aspirations, but for different reasons, is Leo Barry, a former Conservative energy minister and now Liberal energy critic. ''I shall decide once riding executives have been elected and I have had a chance to determine my support. Many people have urged me to run and I am interested,'' the 41-year-old lawyer said in an interview.

Mr. Barry has been in and out of politics since 1972, when he was first elected to the Newfoundland House of Assembly. After a brief stint as deputy speaker, he became minister of mines and energy, where he took the lead in developing Newfoundland's oil and gas regulations.

Defeated in the 1975 provincial election, Mr. Barry served as chairman of the Newfoundland Labor Relations Board for two years before becoming a lecturer at Dalhousie University's law school in Halifax.

In 1979, Mr. Barry returned to Newfoundland to contest the Tory leadership left vacant by the resignation of then premier Frank Moores, finishing second in a tough, emotional battle with Mr. Peckford. After the 1979 election, Mr. Barry became energy minister and minister of industrial development in the Peckford Cabinet.

In the fall of 1981, Mr. Barry resigned over a disagreement with the Premier on how negotiations on offshore resources with Ottawa should be conducted. And on Feb. 21, 1984, he crossed the floor to join the Liberal Party.

Although his critics say he may have to pay the price for being seen as a political changeling (he began his political life at Memorial University as a Liberal), Mr. Barry disagrees. ''I believe the record will show that I have been very consistent in my criticism of the Government's performance and that my criticisms have stood the test of time. Neither the offshore nor the Upper Churchill should have ended up in court for reasons that should now be obvious.'' Mr. Barry says the next government of Newfoundland will have to show a different face to the rest of the country. ''We've got to stop blaming other people for all our troubles, stop acting like St. John's is a foreign capital, and convince companies that are coming east that Newfoundland
is a good place to locate.'' The third formidable prospect for the Liberal leadership race is Richard Cashin, a former Liberal MP and one-time heir apparent to Mr. Smallwood who now leads the powerful Newfoundland Fishermen's Union.

While Mr. Wells carefully weighs personal considerations against the rigors of public life, and Mr. Barry steps gingerly in Liberal circles to avoid being seen as a Johnny-come-lately with more ambition than party commitment, Mr. Cashin is using the single most explosive issue in Newfoundland politics to offer a carefully reasoned indictment of the Peckford Government and Ottawa.

Despite the work of a federal task force to rescue the troubled East Coast fishery, the inshore sector appears to be at the knife's edge once more. Because of huge inventories of unsold fish, some companies in Newfoundland have announced that they won't be buying cod for the time being, a turn of events that could ruin the small-boat fishermen here.

With widespread predictions in Newfoundland of a crash in the inshore fishery this summer, Mr. Cashin argues that the Peckford Government has had an unhealthy preoccupation with offshore oil to the exclusion of every other issue, particularly the fishery.

An intellectual with a flair for the bombastic, the union leader is the only major prospect for the Liberal leadership who has openly connected what he sees as the narrow, legalistic approach of the Peckford Government on the offshore to an underlying we-they attitude that ''really questions the basic decision of 1949.'' Mr. Cashin is also critical of the federal role in the recent restructuring of the fishery in Newfoundland. He says that although banks and large companies were financially assisted there was nothing in the new federal fisheries policy for primary producers ''whose financial crisis has been greater than that of the so-called big four deep-sea
companies.'' Although Mr. Cashin hasn't declared he is running for the leadership, hign-ranking Liberals here say he has told them he will be a candidate.

Meanwhile, present leader Stephen Neary is mildly amused at the combative talent that appears to be lining up for his job. ''We've gone through some pretty lean times, and this is quite a change. I'm looking forward to a knock 'em down, drag 'em out convention, a real fight.'' Asked whether it's true that he's headed for the Senate, Mr. Neary smiles and winks: ''Don't count on that. I may even run myself.''