somewhat older, less feisty, more comfortably confident Brian Peckford who
ascended the stage as guest speaker at the closing of NOIA’S 40thconference. But time had not altered his powers of communication or any of his
enormous capacity to be singular with his audience, to entertain them and,
concomitantly, to leave them feeling slightly less comfortable than when they
first sat down.
staffer of Premier Peckford, in the 1970s and 80s (full disclosure), I had
watched the performance many times, often jealously — the rapport quickly
established, the bond of trust unmistakable, all given an articulation that
found clarity only because it was as physical and emotional as it was verbal. Like
him or hate him — many did both, and some at the same time — he was a master
never ever talked about silly stuff. He was always a man on a mission. He loved
the cut and thrust of politics, found assurance in his ability to read a public through
the medium of what he described as his “bellybutton”, and revelled when he
bettered the opposition Liberals, or got his message to the media an hour or
two before the Feds — even if, most of the time, they held all the cards.
unread regarded his political machinations as gamesmanship. The more astute
would see them as levers, the mechanisms of shrewdness, the game — not the
plan. Underneath all the theatre there was
essence, politics without purpose is only about winning and losing. Real
politics exposes and circumscribes amateurs and wannabes. Ring-fenced by
values and goals, it truly is the art of the possible.
started in, I wondered how he would contain himself in the face of all the bad
politics, much of it from his own Party — from Danny Williams to Paul Davis. Policy has become submerged to politics, losing its public purpose in the
bargain… It has become something personal — what is still not clear, but certainly
something more self-serving.
Liberals under Dwight Ball, assessed in a Peckfordian context, must seem to
him a bunch having stumbled in from another planet. They possess no ability to
turn forward a dial that ought not to have been reversed. The Tories had
engaged in mind-numbing recklessness, certainly deception — possibly chicanery —
precipitating Ball’s ascension to the 8th Floor in the first place.
who was Ball but an interloper, bereft of either passion or policy — a rogue
element, cold and indifferent, an awkward man trying to graft himself onto a warmer,
and fearful — if far too needy — body politic.
Peckford. There is no need for metaphor for what is obvious.
began about his roots in St. John’s, of all places. Who would ever have taken
him, of all people, for a Townie? Of course, his father was a social worker
whose career was spent in many places in the province, allowing Brian to claim
no fixed address.
questioned his heritage or that, in every bone and sinew of his being, he was a
Newfoundlander. No one questioned him, that is, except one former Premier who
was quick to denigrate him and his public expression of concern over the Muskrat
Falls project — it, ostensibly, having held less value because he no longer
galled him that, only one day after his NOIA speech, Nalcor announced overruns of
another billion dollars, raising project costs to $12.7 billion.
wonder that he noted that “the Government predicts it will receive
$902,765,000 million in offshore oil royalties… and that the [amount] totals… more
than all Federal Government cash transfers to the Province” — this year and
likely for a very long time.
pilloried for Sprung — and deserved the criticism, however well-intentioned
the project. But, if objectivity were allowed, unlike Muskrat, it was not
covered up or lied about, it didn’t imperil the whole economy, and transparency
was reported daily on the evening news. If only Muskrat had received the same
Peckford avoided discussion of Muskrat.
two succeeding generations (all taking the Atlantic Accord for granted) that
it was an achievement hard won, that it ought to be celebrated, and that its
continued existence would require the diligence of the current and future
I mean no one — understands better than Peckford the avarice of the centralizers
in Ottawa and their desire to reassert a vision of Canada that he and Mulroney
eschewed, one that did not favour the sparse and politically powerless
justification for shared jurisdiction over NL’s offshore resources was explained
a thousand times in the 80s and 90s; the moment at the St. John’s Convention
Centre seemed a tear in the fabric of time. Strangely, the relevance of that
earlier fight had not diminished one little bit.
that combined the grab for the fast buck, political partisanship, insecurity,
and Newfoundlanders’ inexperience with advancing their interests in the still–new confederal arrangement, all conspired to create a culture of deference to
an Ottawa-centric federal government. NL had made a terrible mistake agreeing to Terms of Union that failed to recognize that most of NL’s huge maritime area, though
having vastly enlarged Canada’s landmass and sovereignty, also held most of our
resources. “Pecky”, as Frank Moores called him, was having none of that.
the retrieval of those rights — if only in part — recorded a leviathan struggle
that exposed the worst aspects of power politics, inter-province rivalry and
self-interest, just as it illuminated the power of strong political leadership
to keep a small society, barely capable of differentiating larger issues
from petty partisan politics, from losing the historic opportunity afforded by
giant offshore oil discoveries.
that finding real leadership in politics is serendipitous. The history of
Newfoundland and Labrador seems to affirm such a thesis. Well, serendipity had
come home for a visit. And he carried a blunt message.
the message was that we need to vigorously defend and preserve the Atlantic
Accord, or risk seeing its erosion.
thing for a weak Ball government to make a bad White Rose Extension deal even
worse for political expediency. But imagine that the province had no mechanism
to manage its still–fledging industry, to keep some local benefits here, or that
approval of new field development was at the mercy, via Ottawa, of every
interest group in the country — from the Greens in British Columbia to big
business in Quebec, or to the petty particle strainers in Nova Scotia.
warns that a federal panel’s proposal to give the feds a mechanism to review
large projects under a new environment assessment process could result in the
fraying of the role of the CNLOP-B and, ultimately, the Atlantic Accord.
didn’t say — and didn’t need to — is that we have to watch out for weak
governments, like the current Ball administration, whose slavish deference to
partisanship — and to small federal hand-outs — will hasten the loss of what
was won in 1985.
take note that is easier to hold onto what was won than to rely on
brief appearance was a tonic for a province starved of serious debate. It was a
kick in the pants for a society far too complacent about its very survival.
serendipity to return a lot more often.