13 January 2020

John Crosbie #nlpoli #cdnpoli

Left to Right:  Bill Doody,  Brian Peckford, John Crosbie, Jane Crosbie,
and Beth Crosbie at the 1983 federal PC leadership convention

The outpouring of praise in memory of John Crosbie, who died on Thursday, has been such a flood of cliché and, in some cases, fiction that it does a disservice to the memory of one of the most significant political figures from Newfoundland and Labrador in the 20th century.

Remarks by Edward Roberts,  Joe Clark, and Brian Mulroney were closer to the truth of the man than most. Roberts once noted that Crosbie wanted to be leader of anything he was ever involved with, starting with the Boy Scouts. Certainly, that is a testament to Crosbie’s ambition and determination, but in his interview last week, Roberts spoke plainly of Crosbie’s considerable intellectual talents that went with his ambition and determination.  

Likewise, Clark spoke of the respect that public servants and cabinet colleagues in Ottawa had for Crosbie both for his ability and for the professional way he dealt with them.  The politicians understood that Crosbie would be tough to deal with when he wanted to get his way, but they understood that Crosbie never failed to deploy the same fierceness in defence of the team when attacked from outside. The bureaucrats appreciated someone who understood their briefs, especially in portfolios like finance.

By contrast, Rex Murphy, so long removed from Newfoundland and Labrador physically and mentally that his writings on the province are a unique brand of safari journalism, gave the National Post his trademark overwrought prose.  He appears, as well, to have used an equally overwrought imagination to cover over the considerable gaps in his memory of what actually happened now almost a half century ago.  

The one thing Murphy got unmistakably right is to credit Jane Crosbie for her role in John’s political career.  Not to eulogise her before her time but Jane is as much the political force, and understood as such, as John ever was. People in Newfoundland and Labrador today who claim they want to get more women involved in politics – many of them people who know nothing of politics in the province and care even less about it – would do well to spend some time talking to Jane Crosbie and others like her. To say that “Jane was every bit his equal” may well sell Jane short, although the crucial part is that “the only difference [between the two] being she chose the off-stage role.”

Crosbie and the Offshore

Too many commentators make Crosbie out as the architect of the 1985 Atlantic Accord.  The truth – revealed in the scant mention of it in Crosbie’s own 1997 collection of anecdotes about his life – is that Crosbie had little to do with it.  Brian Mulroney proposed the idea that offshore resources ought to be treated like those on land.  He delivered on his promise once he became Prime Minister.
Brian Peckford and Pat Carney, both of whom were deeply involved in the negotiations of the astounding agreement know and have said publicly that Crosbie was nowhere to be seen.

Carney, the federal energy minister at the time, told the Chronicle Herald in 2007 that, “despite claims to the contrary, John Crosbie was never involved in the offshore negotiations with either province in the l980s. That task was assigned by prime minister Brian Mulroney to me, on the grounds that a Western MP and minister with an energy background would bring more balance to an issue which involved intense regional as well as national implications.”
 Mr. Mulroney was still leader of the Opposition when he signed the original principles of the Atlantic accord with then premier Brian Peckford on June 14, 1984, three months before the Conservatives won the federal election. The completion of negotiations, led by me, was a priority of his government.
John Crosbie’s most important contribution to the province’s oil and gas industry came in 1992.  With oil at the equivalent of $12.88 cents a barrel today, Gulf Canada pulled out of the Hibernia project at a crucial time.  Crosbie brought the federal government to the financial rescue of the project, over the considerable political resistance from western Canada and elsewhere.  Hibernia was the lead project of the province’s offshore oil industry and, as it turned out, the source of the wealth that made Newfoundland and Labrador one of the wealthiest governments in Canada.

This may be what the Accord praisers meant but it is more important to credit Crosbie for precisely what he did and why that is important than to simply make stuff up about him.

Crosbie and Muskrat Falls

Oddly missing from the recollections of Crosbie’s political accomplishments is his role in what is - after oil and gas – arguably the biggest political story in post Confederation Newfoundland and Labrador.  As provincial energy minister in Frank Moores’ administration, Crosbie led the de facto nationalisation of BRINCO’s interest in Labrador hydro-electric development and the creation of Newfoundland and Labrador Hydro. Crosbie believed that Newfoundland and Labrador should have taken the action in the 1960s when Quebec nationalised its own electricity industry and created Hydro-Quebec. 

The effect of the move was to create a political fight between two provinces that is now more a matter of fiction than fact in almost every aspect of its popular telling. In 1976, Crosbie initiated the first of many unsuccessful legal efforts to undo the 1969 power contract between Churchill Falls (Labrador) Corporation and Hydro-Quebec.  Crosbie initiated the recall demand for 800 megawatts of power to be delivered in 1983 even though the province did not need the electricity and, as Crosbie noted in his 1997 book, had no way of getting it to the island where it was supposedly needed.

Crosbie was not alone in this effort nor could anyone has foreseen where those events in the 1970s would lead. The objective of the exercise, simply put, was to find a way to overcome the financial problems faced by the government and spur the economic development of the province.  The ones behind the effort may have wound up fighting with Hydro-Quebec but they were, in no small measure, inspired by the example of Quebec in the 1960s and financial windfalls that could come – they believed – from having just such an organisation in Newfoundland and Labrador. 

There were other views within government at the time.  Frank Moores, for example, regretted the acquisition of the BRINCO interest since it increased the public debt by 25% at the time.  Bill Marshall, another key figure in the provincial cabinets through the 1970s and 1980s, believed it would have been enough to buy back the water rights.

Yet at the time both Moores and Marshall were persuaded of the view of Crosbie and his allies.  As much as those initial intentions were good, it is a matter of fact that the feud with Hydro-Quebec, initiated in the mid-1970s, drove decades of relentless and fruitless legal manoeuvring.  And ultimately, the myth of Hydro-Quebec’s untrustworthiness and the fairy tales about the 1969 contract played a central role in the rationalisation for the Muskrat Falls project.  And Crosbie – his own understanding of the issues still locked in 1976 – endorsed Muskrat Falls as a risky but worthwhile gambit to break Quebec’s (after 1997 imaginary) stranglehold on development of Labrador’s hydroelectric potential.

The Class of ‘66

John Crosbie entered provincial politics in 1966.  Joe Smallwood appointed him to cabinet alongside Alex Hickman and Clyde Wells.  Three of them bright, two of them, shiny and young and every bit the symbols of the generation born before Confederation but the first to come of age after it.  At university in the 1950s and early 1960s and then into cabinet in August 1966 right before Smallwood called the election in September.

It is no small testament to Crosbie’s achievements that, in a statement released Saturday, Clyde Wells said Crosbie had done as much for the province as Smallwood. The handful of words by Wells needs a context, though, to give it proper impact.  The Class of 1966 stands out for the number of members who shaped the province and its politics for decades after.  Crosbie as provincial cabinet minister and federal cabinet minister in a career spanning just shy of 30 years.  Clyde Wells, later Premier at a crucial time in the province’s history and afterwards Chief Justice of Newfoundland and Labrador.  Alex Hickman, a cabinet minister under two different Premiers, later a supreme court justice and the commissioner who investigated both the Ocean Ranger tragedy and Donald Marshall’s wrongful conviction.  Edward Roberts, Smallwood’s executive assistant, then into cabinet, later leader of the opposition in the 1970s and back into cabinet in the 1990s, finishing, like Crosbie as Lieutenant Governor.  If Wells put Crosbie on a par with Smallwood, then it is high praise indeed.

As tempting as it is to tell an entertaining story, Rex Murphy is wrong – fundamentally wrong – to characterise the political defeat of Smallwood as a struggle between Smallwood and Crosbie.  It was due to a shift in the people of Newfoundland and Labrador, especially those who came of age in the years after Confederation.  Not surprisingly,  Crosbie and Wells played a hand in the beginning of the movement to oust Smallwood. 

In his memoir,  Crosbie accurately describes the rupture with Smallwood over financing for the Come by Chance refinery. Smallwood agreed to give the job of negotiating with John Shaheen to a cabinet committee that included the Wells, Crosbie, and Hickman.  Crosbie and Wells decided to make a stand as Smallwood intervened in the talks to give Shaheen an even better deal than the one Smallwood had already worked out.  Crosbie and Wells had concerns about the financial risks to the province and, as it worked out,  left cabinet over the whole business.  Smallwood had their desks bolted to the floor on the opposition side of the House.  It took four years, however,  including the PC win in the 1968 federal election, and then the 1969 Liberal provincial leadership fight  for the movement against Smallwood to gather momentum. 

Smallwood did not go easily or willingly.  He announced his resignation  - hence the 1969 leadership fight – and then decided to seek to replace himself when it appeared Crosbie would win the job. Crosbie was still an independent Liberal in 1971 when he and Wells led a cross-examination of Shaheen in the spectacle that accompanied debate of the refinery in the House and Shaheen being called to the bar of the House to answer questions. 

But Crosbie and Frank Moores – by then returned to Newfoundland and Labrador from Ottawa to become PC leader – had been talking for a while about Crosbie’s move to the PCs in the 19761 election.  They cut a deal, the details of which are only hinted at in Crosbie’s memoir, that saw Crosbie join the Tories.  The 1971 election was a tie and it took another six months afterwards, a change of government and another general election in 1972 before Smallwood was consigned to the opposition benches for the rest of his parliamentary career.

The Great and the Small

Like all great public figures, Crosbie’s record is neither simple nor clean.  Crosbie was the federal minister representing the province at a time when half the provincial government’s income came from federal transfers.  This gave Crosbie power over the province that rivalled that of Smallwood at his peak.  And like Smallwood, Crosbie did not relish being challenged. 

In his 1997 memoir, Crosbie personally attacked both Clyde Wells and Brian Peckford for doing nothing more than representing their provinces and taking positions with which Crosbie did not agree.  To Crosbie, they were selfish and ungrateful. Crosbie was no different in office.  In September 1990, the provincial government raised the possibility that the 1985 Atlantic Accord’s Equalization offsets might not work as intended.  Crosbie publicly dismissed the suggestion as the government “biting the hand that feeds it” and of “wanting to have one’s cake and vomiting it up too.”    No other minister in any other administration would have spoken of a provincial government that way nor gotten away with it.

To his last breath, Crosbie repeated the lie that Clyde Wells had destroyed the Meech Lake Accord.  In his comments on Crosbie’s role in Hibernia, Mulroney did the same thing in reference to Crosbie’s championing of a federal investment in Hibernia.  The truth is that Mulroney’s Accord died as a result of political opposition across Canada and his own administration’s miscalculations about wells and about Elijah Harper in Manitoba. 

As for the Hibernia project, it delivered such financial and strategic benefits to the country that it would have been childish and stupid for federal politicians to let the project die.  The 58 federal Progressive Conservative MPs to whom Mulroney referred as bearing a grudge over Meech Lake would have been biting off their own noses to spite their own faces had they rejected the federal investment in the offshore.

This should not diminish Crosbie’s pivotal role in pushing for the federal investment.  Both Rex Gibbons - energy minister at the time – and Peter Kennedy, a public servant whose career began when Crosbie was a provincial cabinet minister, rightly identify Crosbie as indispensable in securing the federal investment and financial guarantees and with it the offshore industry that transformed Newfoundland and Labrador. Others could be more generous and fair than Crosbie.

Crosbie’s view of provincial ingratitude varied with his position at the time.  Pat Carney’s letter to the editor of the Chronicle Herald, for example, came after Crosbie’s savaging of the 1985 Accord’s Equalization offsets.  She finished the letter by observing that the “actions of Mr. Crosbie in attacking the Atlantic Accord provisions in the Harper budget show Mr. Mulroney's concerns were valid.” 
This was not the only time that Carney and Crosbie slagged each other in public.  Crosbie refers to her as “cantankerous” and a “bad-tempered Irishwoman” in his 1997 memoir.  She returned the favour in her memoir three years later. Nor was it the only time Crosbie shifted positions on a subject and attacked people he had previously supported.

 As much as he endorsed Danny Williams in 2004-2005, a couple of years later, Crosbie penned a column for Atlantic Business Magazine in which he labelled Williams the biggest current threat to Confederation.  Later, Crosbie criticised Williams over the provincial party leadership. For his part, Williams returned the favour by expressing amazement at Crosbie’s ingratitude for the elevator the provincial government had installed at Government House during Crosbie’s tenure as Lieutenant Governor since Crosbie had difficulty negotiating stairs.

A Great Story, Much Left of it to Be Told

John Crosbie is one of the most significant figures in Newfoundland and Labrador history in the second half of the 20th century.  His significant role in Canadian politics, particularly in championing development of the east coast offshore and in advocating free trade, is largely unexplored. Of all his considerable achievements, Crosbie’s role in the development of the province’s hydro-electric industry has been – like the industry itself- ignored by scholars and the public alike while he was alive and in the tributes to him since he passed away last Thursday.

Clyde Wells said of Crosbie that he had a more extensive impact on the province than anyone except Joe Smallwood.  This may be an uncharacteristic exaggeration by Wells.  But when the full, and accurate, account is made of Crosbie’s 30 years in provincial and federal politics, Wells will likely not be very far off the mark.