I first met Bill when I was a student at Memorial and had become the first President of the Progressive Conservative Club there in 1966. Prior to then political clubs hadn’t been permitted on campus. Our lives have been intertwined ever since then and he is one of my oldest and dearest friends and a great supporter of my career in the provincial public service.
He was the last surviving member of the first Moores Administration.
Following the retirement of his father, Walter Marshall, from the position of Deputy Minister of Finance in 1966, Bill entered political life. His father had been Secretary (Head) of Finance under Commission of Government and was the financial advisor to the Newfoundland delegation which negotiated the Terms of Union with Government. He was awarded an OBE for his work with the Commission.
I had been after Bill for many years to write his autobiography and several years ago he asked me to assist him in that endeavour and I enlisted Dr. Melvin Baker to work with me. As a result we spent a lot of time with him over the last few years. We last saw him about a month ago and were planning to see him again in a weeks time. Those meetings and interviews were delightful and enlightening and will serve us well as we endeavour to finish his biography.
Bill loved the cut and thrust of the House of Assembly, where for the first part of the Moores administration, he served as Government House Leader, a position he resumed when he joined the Peckford administration in 1979.
We learned during our interviews with him that his love of debate started at a very early age. When he was only 11 he started to listen to the debates in the National Convention, which met between 1946-48 to debate the future constitutional status of Newfoundland. He took no position on the merits of the debate but loved the to and fro of the discussions.
This interest in debating continued when he went to Dalhousie to finish his undergraduate degree and law degree where he was a member of their debating team. One of the most memorable of those debates was one judged by Senator Eugene Forsey, a constitutional expert, who came from Newfoundland. Bill recalled that he may have missed noting the presence of a distinguished person in the room and was criticised by Senator Forsey in his adjudication. At the end of the debate Bill couldn’t resist chasing after him to object to the critique! He loved a fight.
When he returned to practice law he ended up with a law firm with strong liberal ties but made it clear to his new partners that this wasn’t were his sympathies lay, but until his father left the public service he kept his incipient political interests in abeyance.
Even though the PC’s only elected 3 members in the 1966 general election, it was clear that public opinion was turning against the Smallwood administration and Bill was a key actor in the coalition which led to the change of government in 1972 following the chaotic 1971 election.
It was also at that time that Bill took on a controversial divorce and custody case between Joey’s son, Bill Smallwood and his wife, Marva. Marva had been represented by another lawyer but he was scared off the case and withdrew, leaving her with no legal representation. She could not get another lawyer and pleaded with the Law Society to obtain counsel for her. Bill’s partner was on Benchers, the governing body of the Law Society, and mentioned it to Bill, who quickly agreed to represent her.
There were also efforts to intimidate him but no one intimidated Bill Marshall!
The trial was extensively covered by the Telegram in all its lurid details at the same time as a provincial by-election was taking place, an election which the PC’s won and turned out be the beginning of the end for Smallwood. Bill remained friends with Marva for the rest of his life.
It also precipitated a famous incident in the House of Assembly several years later, when Bill became a member in a by-election in 1970. Bill was reading a list of slum landlords from an alternative newspaper, which included Bill Smallwood’s mother, Clara. Bill Smallwood, who was also a member of the House of Assembly, took umbrage with this attack on his mother, and punched Bill in the face!
What distinguished Bill from many other politicians of that era was that his prime motivation in entering public life was to eliminate the graft and corruption he saw in the Smallwood administration and to bring in the merit principal in appointments to the public service. When he became a Minister without portfolio and Government House Leader in 1972 he personally drafted the first Public Tender Act and established the Public Service Commission.
However, he quickly discovered that his zeal for an open and transparent public tendering process wasn’t shared by his colleagues and resigned from government over an attempt to award a contract for an office building for the government without a public tender.
He remained in public life however, even though he was exiled to the farthest corner of the back benches, and decided to support Brian Peckford for the leadership of the party upon the resignation of Frank Moores in 1979. He then rejoined Cabinet as President of the Executive Council. and resumed his role as Government House Leader.
One of the prime policy objectives of the new Peckford Administration was resource management and control, focusing in particular on offshore oil and gas.
Bill had no direct role in this issue until a dispute between the Premier and the Minister of Energy, Leo Barry, about how the negotiations between Newfoundland and Canada were to be conducted, erupted and resulted in Leo’s resignation and in Bill becoming the Minister responsible for the offshore negotiations.
Bill and Brian Peckford had become strong political allies and friends and were of the same mind on our policy objectives for the offshore; joint management and full and unencumbered rights to set and collect royalties from the offshore as if the resource was on land.
They put together a team of public servants, led by the late Cyril Abery, to assist in those negotiations, and I was one of them and worked very closely with Bill, yet again.
Bill used to affectionately call us his “creatures”. He used that term to make the point that the elected representatives controlled those negotiations not the civil servants on the negotiating team.
They were complex and difficult negotiations which went nowhere with the Liberal administration in Ottawa led by the elder Trudeau, who saw federal control of the offshore as a counterweight to Alberta. On joint management their position was “Ottawa” decides. And on revenues, they would be capped.
There was incredible local pressure to capitulate, given the precarious fiscal situation of the province and high unemployment. In a memorable turn of phrase Bill described the business community, who were critical of what they saw as our intransigence, as “money grubbing Water Street Merchants”, for which he was roundly criticized by his wife Joan!
The adverse decision of the Supreme Court of Canada on which jurisdiction controlled the offshore placed additional pressure on the Peckford administration to accept what was on offer. The decision by the Government of Nova Scotia to accept the federal offer ratcheted up the pressure even more, although they were clever enough to have a provision which allowed them to accept a better deal if that was negotiated by Newfoundland, which turned out to be the case!
Bill then negotiated the outlines of an agreement with the then Leader of the Opposition, Brian Mulroney, who fortunately became Prime Minister, and the Atlantic Accord was signed in 1985.
Since then we have created an industry and have had $27 billion dollars in royalties come into provincial coffers. We haven’t managed those revenues very well but that’s a story for another day. We have to thank Bill Marshall for that.
The Atlantic Accord has stood the test of time and stands with the Terms of Union as the two most important documents in our history. Bill’s father was an important actor in the latter accomplishment, and Bill was the same on the former.
Bill was one of the most important political figures in the post-Smallwood era.
But he was also a wonderful husband and father and a great and loyal friend to many. On the occasion when my political activities in my youth caught up with me with the change of Administration in 1989 he was the first to call and support me when I was terminated. Others who have communicated with me since his death have all remarked on his extraordinary kindness to them.
Bill left public life shortly after the signing of the Atlantic Accord and became a member of the Court of Appeal until his retirement in 2003. During his time on the court he was involved in a number of successful appeals which overturned wrongful convictions, for which he was recognized by Innocence Canada. Bill had a special place in his heart for the underdog.
When the late Cyril Abery retired as Chair and CEO of Newfoundland Hydro, following a public service career spanning the end of the Smallwood era, right up to the Wells administration, he said at his retirement party that Bill Marshall was the best Minister he ever worked for.
He was a giant of Newfoundland politics. I will miss him very much and will think of him often as Melvin Baker and I work on his biography so his life and contributions to Newfoundland and Labrador are properly remembered.