Monday, July 02, 2007

Clyde Wells becomes Liberal leader 20 years ago

In June 1987, Clyde Kirby Wells, a constitutional and appellate lawyer and former minister of labour under Smallwood, defeated Winston Baker to became leader of the Liberal party of Newfoundland and Labrador.

It was a win given little consideration in the province and wholly unnoticed in the wider Canada. That would change.

In the House of Assembly and on the provincial political stage, Premier Brian Peckford was in his last days and through his antics, tactics and personality he sucked all the political oxygen in the province. He polarized the province into those for and against him, his policies and the province. He fought petty battles with local media outlets, notably the Sunday Express which chronicled his dubious personal expenditures and the peccadillos of his cabinet members.

In fighting the last of his constitution/oil battles, he was distracted in vigorously defending the indefensible in the Sprung project which was becoming more of a political tar baby everyday.

Taking on a thankless job, for the next two years Wells quietly, thoroughly and with great tenacity rebuilt a shattered party from the ground up. Under Smallwood the party was merely a shell for his own personal political ends so there was no structure at the provincial or district level under his leadership. While that had changed some in the intervening years, Wells still had his work cut out for him.

As opposition leader, it was hard for Wells to seize public attention and that wasn't his style anyway. He preferred to tackle issues than take potshots and he refused to go for the cheap political points. He took more than a little political flack from his own party stalwarts for not being louder and noisier.

Resigning in early 1989, Peckford was succeeded by Tom Rideout and the stage was set for a general election. Just three weeks after taking the reins of the PC party, Premier Rideout announced the province was going to the polls.

Instead of catching the Liberal opposition by surprise, he seemed to have caught his own party flatfooted.

Rideout puttered around in St. John's for a few days until he, and his party, were ready for him to hit the road. The previous two campaigns saw the Peckford Tories steamroll the hapless Liberals almost into oblivion. This time it seemed the Tories were wrong footed while the Liberals seemed like they couldn't do anything wrong.

On the day of the call, the Liberal bus was in front of the Confederation Building. There was a rally in the lobby and Wells mounted the bus and didn't stop moving for the next 21 days. The media was surprised to see how prepared, organised and energized the party seemed to be. They noted what seemed to them a generational change within the party and that was symbolised by a new and unfamiliar young crew of relatively young staffers manning the bus and supporting Wells.

One of those new staffers was me.

This pic was taken outside the legislature during a fire alarm around October 1990, I think. Left to right are Roger Grimes (later premier), Paul Sparkes, 1 unknown female with obscured face, Lynne King, Kim Ploughman, Ed Hollett, Deborah Coyne and me.

While I had noted the election of Wells to the leadership two years before, it wasn't until I met the man that I signed on to help. He was speaking at MUN when i was passing through on day and I was snagged by his executive assistant, an old friend of mine.

"Come over," he said, "and hear what he has to say." By that point I had wholly given up on provincial politics. I was annoyed and disgusted with the government of the day and had given up hope that it could be replaced. But I took a chance and went to give him a fair hearing.

I was amazed. Wells was clear, articulate, cool and rational. I quizzed him on issues and he responded with clear, unambiguous and reasoned answers instead of cant and roars. When the session finished, I went back to my friend, buttonholed him and told him to sign me up.

I found myself on the bus the next week for the duration of the campaign. I saw more of the province in those three weeks than I ever expected to see in my lifetime. It was an invaluable education in provincial geography, economics and history.

One recollection from that tour stands out. A reporter from the Sun media group in Ontario was assigned to the campaign. It seemed like he wasn't happy covering the campaign of an obscure opposition leader in an obscure province because he just wasn't enthused about being there. He was bored and expected no notable stories to come out of it.

One evening, while political rally-of-the-day was blaring in the next room, we struck up a conversation and he asked me where Wells stood on a variety of issues, including Meech Lake. I told him Wells was against it and that he would move to rescind it (take another vote in the House to withdraw provincial approval) should he win government.

"He can't do that," he said, somewhat peevishly.

"Don't take my word for it. Ask him yourself," I retorted.

He did. Wells gave him his standard and patented explanation for why Meech Lake was bad for the province and the country and what he was going to do about it. The reporter, happy to find an issue he could run with, filed the story and that was the first time Wells came to national attention.

I made his day.

That election was a squeaker. Wells and the Liberals started that campaign 21 points behind and for those 21 days, he climbed about 1 point a day. In the end, the PC's won 1 point more in the popular vote than the Liberals. But out of 6 seats won by less than 100 votes, the Liberals won 5. Wells lost his own seat.

After just 42 days in office, Rideout was out and Wells was in.

I won't go through the history of the whole of the Wells administration. Suffice it to say that his administration was a sea change from the one which preceded (Peckford) and the one which followed (Brian Tobin) and bears little resemblance to the one in place today.

Wells was premier during some of the most difficult times this province faced in the last half of the 20th century, including the cod moratorium (the biggest labour layoff in Canadian history) and all the associated social and economic problems. And he did it coolly with grace, poise and through honest intellectual force.

More on that another time.

I'll leave the last word to Rex Murphy: when Wells resigned, Rex gave his thoughts on Wells in the way only Rex can, opining that Clyde Wells brought perfume to the abattoir of NL politics.

And so he did.

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