Fighting words (part 2)

In the second half of our feature interview with former premier Brian Peckford, he talks about his former party, the past (and future) of the fishery, Meech Lake and why Brian Tobin’s turbot war enrages him to this day

Part 1 of this feature can be viewed here

Brian Peckford hasn’t been this province’s Progressive Conservative leader in over twenty years, but if you thought that might temper his opinions regarding the current state of his former party, you’d be mistaken. He is not in the mood to spare feelings this morning.

“We don’t stand for anything,” he says, and it’s hard to tell if he sounds more disappointed or indignant at this. “We’ve got to start leading again. [They need to] establish a set of programs, platforms, policies that they identify with that are theirs and that differentiate them from everyone else. Say, ‘This is what we stand for.’ Then go out and sell it.”

Peckford is genuinely at a loss to understand how the current generation of Newfoundland and Labrador Tories have not forged their own direction in the post-Danny Williams era, since it would appear they inherited a gilded opportunity to do so. Of course, there’s also the cyclical nature of electoral politics. When we think someone else has had enough time in the driver’s seat, we’re more than willing to vote the keys to someone else. I point out that a Liberal resurgence, and also a very real swell of support for their province’s NDP, are definitely well within the realm of possibility in the next few years.

“When a society gets better off, it has the luxury to court more left wing views,” Peckford replies. “The Conservatives gave them that luxury.” Those same Conservatives, it can be argued, had the luxury of cementing their power here for a very long time, but Peckford believes it is now slipping away from them.

You’ve got to be lucky to be good

Seeing as he is unafraid to call out friends and foe alike, I ask who he considered to be his toughest political opponent during his time in power.

“Ed Roberts,” he says, crediting the former provincial Liberal Leader for his toughness but also his intellectual skill. “His brain was excellent. A great debater, maybe the best in the legislature that I can remember. Everyone else was quite a few steps down from Ed.”

We discuss a few more names, and here he mentions former colleague Leo Barry (“A bright fellow”), who famously left Peckford’s cabinet to join and eventually take leadership of the Liberals. I ask if he took it personally.

“No, not at the time,” he says. “I had some really good ministers, especially Bill Marshall, Gerry Ottenheimer and John Collins. They become the heroes of the book. Those three guys understood government, governance, the role of the cabinet… they were steeped in it. So they were people who understood. They were ministers, and they were advisers, and we would debate internally. But when the decision was made… Well, they won some and they lost some, and I won some and lost some.”

“You’ve got to be lucky as well as good.” – former Premier Brian Peckford

Losing internal squabbles was one thing, but it is safe to say that by the 1980s Peckford had had his fill of this province losing its larger-scale political battles. His book outlines what he describes as three game-changers for the province: The fishery, Upper Churchill and offshore resources. “We lost out on [the first] two and won by the skin of our teeth on the third,” he says. He is quick to credit the work he and his colleagues put into it, but also gives praise to a little good fortune and one of his political heroes.

“You’ve got to be lucky as well as good,” he says. “If Brian Mulroney had never been there [the Atlantic Accord] would never have happened. He and [former Minister of Energy, Mines and Resources] Pat Carney delivered the goods, even when they didn’t have to. They had a Supreme Court of Canada decision in their back pocket, but still stayed true to the course. Really, an unbelievable thing. If Mulroney hadn’t gotten elected [in 1984], and it looked for a while like he wasn’t, we would not be where we are today. We’d have gotten some watered down, Nova Scotia-style agreement.”

The fall of Meech Lake

Peckford did, however, see a deal he strongly supported fail. The Meech Lake Accord was passed by this province’s legislature, but later revoked through the efforts of former Liberal Premier Clyde Wells. Peckford still smarts at the memory, saying the Accord represented “the epitome of that kind of accommodation” we as Canadians have for each other and our cultural diversity. In other words, it was the best chance for us to all just get along.

Peckford thinks there were two reasons that swayed Wells against the Accord: one was his strong attention to detail and the other was the influence of a key colleague.

“Wells tends to sometimes see a really important tree, but it’s still in the forest,” he says. “He can get very, very picky and perhaps lose perspective. His point may be valid, and that tree might be rotten and someday really hurt the forest, but he can take it out of all context.”

The other reason, Peckford suspects, was Debbie Coyne, constitutional lawyer and long-time Liberal who Wells hired as an advisor from 1989-91: “A very bright lady, very articulate, who took a real interest in stating that the Meech Lake Accord was not right. I think she had a big influence over him at the time.” Whatever the reasons, Wells would be instrumental in the Accord’s eventual downfall.

Peckford clearly loves the diplomatic wheelings-and-dealings and the finesse of negotiation so crucial in politics. I ask him if he ever misses it, if he misses being in the game. He says no, because he can find satisfaction – and passion – in whatever he throws himself into.

“If you were my boss and we were doing a job out here [he gestures to some nearby construction], and I had to dig a ditch, I’d be so excited about that that I’d make sure that was the best goddamned ditch ever dug. I can move on and become just as excited about other things. Obviously, something as large as running a province, you can only do that once. And you’ll always revel in that.”

The fishery: Past lessons, future hope

Peckford is on record saying we need a new Atlantic Accord, one that revisits one of the three “game changers” that, in his opinion, this province lost out on. He believes strongly that the fishery will be a huge part of Newfoundland and Labrador’s economic future. But it has been terribly mismanaged to this point through bad deals and worse ideas.

“Fundamentally, you can’t manage the Atlantic fishery, the Newfoundland fishery, from Ottawa. You just can’t do it,” he says.” The Rideau Canal doesn’t work. What I mean by that is, you can’t have people developing policy and just getting feedback from their satellite offices. That’s why in the Atlantic Accord, the board had to be here. Had to be physically here, had to be down in that fucking building. They had to live here. They had to smell the salt air. They had to listen to the Fisherman’s Broadcast. They had to go to Petty Harbour and go to Twillingate. It’s only then you see, as Wordsworth said, ‘into the life of things.’ Fundamentally, it was a mistake from day one when the terms of the union (of Newfoundland joining Canada) were negotiated.”

“Fundamentally, you can’t manage the Atlantic fishery, the Newfoundland fishery, from Ottawa. You just can’t do it…Without Newfoundland’s active and ongoing involvement in fisheries matters, from A-Z, this thing isn’t going to work.”

Peckford is dismissive of the Confederation negotiators and their lack of knowledge of the fishery, not to mention their own vested interest in the deal going through and the eventual personal rewards they would reap. However, he explains that when it comes to the fishery, self-interest and self-promotion are not limited to this province’s past.

“Poor old Tobin and his turbot,” he chides. “He sucked in the federal government and the press [with that]. What a sick joke that was. After the cod had left for ten years, he gets on about the turbot. That was the biggest Newfie joke of all. Brian Tobin, Minister of Fisheries and Oceans, and he gets on with that PR exercise with the Portuguese, driving them out because they were taking turbot? As if turbot was one of the species that had made or not made Newfoundland over the last 400 years. Everybody up along sucked it all in, and he was the big hero. Captain Canada. What a sick piece of work that was. Gah! Talk about why the fishery is so badly managed when you got people like that around? A Newfoundlander who doesn’t understand anything about the fishery, and he talks about turbot?”

It would be the closest Peckford came to a full-on rant during our conversation, and it’s easy to see why. The fishery is near and dear to him, and its chronic mismanagement clearly rankles him.

“It behooves the province now [to act]. Thanks to the better economic position they’re now in, therefore they have far more clout than we did at the time,” he says. ”Again, it’s all a question of leadership. They [should consult] with their best policy advisors within government, and then consult throughout the province with the fishermen and fish companies and so on, and develop a broadly-based, long-term plan for the fishery, especially the ground fishery. And then develop that into a major, major policy document… Then you go out and sell it to the people of Newfoundland and Labrador, and then sell it to Ottawa. It has to be a whole new management structure for the fishery, which has to have both locale as well as management powers that must be shared with the federal government. Without Newfoundland’s active and ongoing involvement in fisheries matters, from A-Z, this thing will never work.”

Peckford might not miss politics, but he clearly misses the battle of ideas behind decisions and the drive to take chances, to just get stuff done. He doesn’t seem to care what people think about him, but he still cares about the fight.

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