Fighting words

Former Premier Brian Peckford talks about his book, his career and his legacy

Brian Peckford’s been out of politics a long time, but he still knows how to work a room.

He and I meet for coffee and his banter with our fellow patrons is easy and genuine; he jokes with the waitress that he hopes he won’t get into DUI trouble for the Screech coffee we’re drinking and even fires a few questions my way – “Where’d you grow up?” “What’s your father do?” “Where’d you go to school?” – before I’ve even turned on my recorder. It’s the part of a politician that never retires, I imagine.

“Looking good, Brian!” someone shouts out from a few tables away.

“Pretty good for 70,” he agrees, smiling broadly. “My mom just passed away. She was 97, and I’m in no rush to meet her.”

The hair might be a little thinner and a bit greyer, but Peckford does indeed look good for 70, and he positively hums with energy. During our conversation he slaps his palm on the table-top a couple of times to emphasize a point or rage against past slights. He likes eye contact and likes to know you’re paying attention, and he isn’t shy of a few blue words when he gets on a real roll. It turns out he’s got a lot to talk about. His memoir, Some Day the Sun Will Shine and Have Not Will Be No More (Flanker Press) just came out. Like any good political history, it gives you the front row rush of not just the nuts-and-bolts history, but the really good gossip.

Some folks will not like how they come off.

Seeking a path

Peckford is a story teller. He freely admits he was always going to write a a book about his life and his experiences in politics, but the kick-start to the project came via a phone call about four or five years ago from a local CBC producer, who left a message on his answering machine wondering if he knew that Newfoundland and Labrador was now officially a “have” province. As his title suggests, he was always confident that day would come.

His family life and childhood he cites as a major influence in his eventual decision to go into politics, and his father especially. Peckford senior was a social worker whose drive to help people served as a natural inspiration to the younger Brian. Peckford eventually landed a summer job working as a fill-in social worker in rural Newfoundland (“None of the other kids wanted to go there. I wanted to go there!”) and the experience, while never boring, left him with a long-lasting frustration with the lack of prosperity and opportunity.

“Seeing…people who couldn’t get contracts because they didn’t know the right people, cab drivers who couldn’t get taxi licenses because they were of the wrong political persuasion…”

“Not anger,” he clarifies, “But I was always wondering, ‘Why can’t things be better? Why are they this wrong?’”

His choice of party allegiance to the PCs was less ideological and more a reaction to what he saw as the lack of real democracy under former Premier Joey Smallwood’s Liberals.

“Seeing how the money was being spent, people who couldn’t get contracts because they didn’t know the right people, cab drivers who couldn’t get taxi licenses because they were of the wrong political persuasion – all of it,” he says, his voice almost a snarl at the memory of it. Peckford himself claims to have been harassed by phone calls or home visits from education officials politely suggesting he toe the Liberal line. The anger for what he describes as Smallwood’s “very real” corruption is still very much alive and well with our third premier.

Political beginnings

Peckford was a young English teacher in Springdale when he decided to get into politics. He ran for one of the now-infamous district associations Smallwood promised would open up the province to more democracy. Peckford insists these existed to prop up his cronies, and he ran for his district presidency to essentially monkey-wrench the process. At the vote, Peckford cleverly suggested he and his opponent speak to the crowd… in alphabetical order. His opponent‘s surname started with a “C.” Peckford, knowing he would speak last, took the opportunity to give a rousing speech championing the need for youth, energy and new ideas. 104 people cast ballots. Peckford fell short, 54-50.

“The only election I lost,” he remembers, smiling. “But I had a taste for it then.”

He stayed in the game. By 29, he was an MHA. Though his initial affiliation with the Progressive Conservatives was born of necessity he eventually came to see himself as a modern Tory who, while economically conservative, was also socially progressive.

…he eventually came to see himself as a modern Tory who, while economically conservative, was also socially progressive.

I ask Peckford if there are indeed any real political differences, ideology-wise, between the PCs and the Liberals in this province. After all, we have a long history of gravitating to strong arm archetypes: brash, tough-guy leaders who are happy to lead through strength of personality, guile and a little bullying every now and then. Or maybe, as the junior members of Confederation, it’s a little simpler. Maybe we as a province are just lagging behind in the battle of ideas.

“I tried [to eventually talk about conservative political philosophy],” he laments. “I spoke out about the importance of rule of law, property rights and limited government, and how that was the way to proceed as a society, over time. And there were occasions where I tried to articulate what it meant to be, in my view, a Progressive Conservative versus a Liberal in Newfoundland. But I think it is a problem of both, and maybe tilts 60-40 to the ‘strong arm’ theory you said.” He acknowledges our history of charismatic leadership, spanning the great orator John Kent (prime minister from 1858-61) to the charismatic Smallwood, as evidence.

A complex legacy

Peckford’s legacy, however, veers sharply away from what modern conservatism represents. His government gave great funding to the arts, founded the first Status of Women Council, the first Environment Department, and more that veer away from typical right-of-centre causes. He also introduced the provincial flag, something he still considers to be of massive importance, and something he still thinks of with terrific fondness.

But he is best known for one thing, and his own opinion about its importance transcends the merely economic.

“It’s the Atlantic accord, [but] for several reasons,” he says. “The Accord is important not just because of what it’s come to manifest, financially. It represents us being able to negotiate something we can be proud of. We couldn’t be proud of the terms of Confederation, from my perspective, particularly because we relinquished all control over the fishery. The Accord gives us levers of power, which help us… Even if [former Premier Danny] Williams didn’t do anything, we’d still be a have province,” he says.

“Even if [former Premier Danny] Williams didn’t do anything, we’d still be a have province…”

During his time as a minister and eventually as Premier, Peckford saw a province he describes as not just struggling to make ends meet – the ends had never once even been properly introduced.

Considering the veneration Danny Williams enjoyed during his tenure as premier and subsequent departure, does he feel shortchanged in recognition?

“Absolutely,” he says, answering before I had even finished the question. “And not just for me, but for the public servants and ministers who served with me. What we did was structural. What came later was mechanical. The house was built, it was just then a matter of re-arranging the rooms. Once you had the fundamentals sorted that you were going to get the revenues [from the resource] as if it was on land, [it was] just a question of whether you had enough oil. Which we did.”

But there was one last twist, and one whose pay-off would prove to be huge.

“[What] we also brokered in the Accord was the principle you couldn’t lose dollar for dollar,” he explains, referring to the previous equalization policy amongst the provinces. “We were the people who broke that principle. Never before, from the day equalization started up until the Atlantic Accord, did anyone have that deal. Not even Saskatchewan, and they had oil, too. If they generated an extra dollar as a have province in any given year, they lost a dollar through equalization.”

“What we did was structural. What came later was mechanical.”

Thanks to the Accord, Newfoundland and Labrador did not and never would. Peckford still has no idea how they got away with it, by the way, and several of his peers have expressed their amazement to him since about it. “We were very insistent, from day one, on getting that,” he said. Peckford and his team wouldn’t bow down to federal pressure, despite his province’s own polls which suggested they should simply take the deal they were offered and enjoy knowing they had “fought the good fight.”

I ask him what he thinks of the current incarnation of the party he once led.

Peckford’s reply proves that he is still not shy of a good fight.

Part 2 of this feature will run early October.

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