Tobin Wins Election

It is the morning after his convincing win in Newfoundland's general election and, at first, Brian Tobin insists that he is too tired to speak at length to a battery of journalists who have questions about his plans for the province.

Tobin Wins Election

It is the morning after his convincing win in Newfoundland's general election and, at first, Brian Tobin insists that he is too tired to speak at length to a battery of journalists who have questions about his plans for the province. But within a few minutes, he gathers steam and begins to hold forth on issues that range from the adaptability of Newfoundlanders to the nature of Confederation as the country nears the end of the millennium. The image that springs to mind is a comparison that Tobin himself drew during a rally at Bay Roberts late in the whirlwind, 25-day election campaign. "I'm like one of those small rechargeable batteries," he declared. "To-night you're recharging me. I'm like the guy with the drum. Bang, bang, bang."

Despite a 37-seat majority in Newfoundland's 48-seat house of assembly - the Conservatives, with nine seats, will form the Opposition while the NDP and an independent candidate each took one - the 41-year-old premier and former federal fisheries minister will need all the energy he can muster in the months ahead. His resolutely upbeat campaign delighted Liberals and many swing voters, but the optimism of his campaign slogan, Ready for a Better Tomorrow, cannot mask the daunting challenges that lie ahead. His government, already laden with an $8-billion debt, faces a budget deficit of $200 million in the coming year, a problem that Tobin intends to address with cuts and some borrowing. Unemployed fishery workers continue to drop off the rolls of federal income support. And pending federal Employment Insurance reforms may reduce benefits for seasonal workers even further, in the process siphoning additional cash from the provincial economy. "I think everyone would agree that the next couple of years are going to be very difficult," says Jim Feehan, an economist at Memorial University in St. John's.

But on election night, in the raucous Lion's Club outside Corner Brook where Tobin's supporters gathered to savor victory, there was little evidence that the demands of office would be too weighty a burden. With TV analysts projecting a Liberal majority a mere 12 minutes after polls closed, the tension and excitement in the room for most of the evening centred on the seesaw battle between Tory Leader Lynn Verge, 45, and Bob Mercer, her Liberal opponent in the riding of Humber East. Said Liberal reveller Kay Anderson as she thumped a Tobin sign on the floor in approval of the neck-and-neck race: "I'd rather see Jack Harris win than her."

Harris, the NDP leader, indeed saved his party's sole seat from the Liberal wave. But it was more than two hours after polls closed before Verge made her gracious concession speech - still without knowing the outcome in her riding. At the time, she trailed by just two votes, a symbolic margin given the difficult choice that Tobin's snap election call on Jan. 29 forced on two of her strongest supporters. To have stayed in Newfoundland for Verge's first campaign as leader, her parents would have had to cancel a long-planned trip to New Zealand. Despite their absence on election night, Verge could take some solace from the popular support her party garnered, 39 per cent compared with 55 per cent for the Liberals, a much better showing than earlier polls predicted. And in her speech she thanked her campaign workers and congratulated Tobin on his "resounding victory," while looking natural and at ease before the microphone - compared with the stilted image she projected in her much-criticized TV campaign commercials.

But after midnight, with Verge mercifully out of the public spotlight, a final poll result sealed her defeat by 14 votes - in a riding that she had held since 1979. At week's end, Verge, who has held cabinet posts in the governments of former Tory premiers Brian Peckford and Tom Rideout, indicated that she is likely to leave politics. "It doesn't make much sense for me to continue as leader without a seat in the house of assembly," she said, adding that she will consult her supporters before reaching a final decision.

By contrast, Tobin appeared on stage with his parents, his wife Jodean and their three children, who are preparing to move to St. John's from Ottawa after the school year ends. "We're looking forward to being closer to family," Jodean Tobin told Maclean's. Whether the premier gets to savor much of that new closeness remains to be seen. Tobin's first task will be to brace Newfoundlanders for the economic pain that still lies ahead. But, as he constantly reminded voters during the campaign, there appears to be light at the end of the tunnel. For one thing, the Hibernia offshore oil project is about to begin producing oil. The huge nickel find in Voisey Bay, Labrador, is almost ready to begin production. In fact, analyses done by the government of Tobin's predecessor, Clyde Wells, indicated that a substantial economic upswing could be under way in Newfoundland by 1998. But the good news forecasts have left some observers unconvinced. "Tobin has created some big expectations," says Stephen Tomblin, a professor of political science at Memorial University in St. John's. "And I'm not sure that reality is going to mesh with the vision that he put forward."

Yet for many, Tobin's optimistic approach struck just the right balance between realism and hope. "I don't think I ever voted Liberal in my life, but I support him," says Craig Dobbin, a prominent Tory who is chief executive officer of CHC Helicopter Corp. of St. John's. "We have a chance to redefine ourselves and I think he is the man who will make sure that jobs and benefits from the offshore and these other projects accrue to Newfoundlanders and Canadians."

Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the election results is the fact that Newfoundland outports generally voted in favor of Tobin's party, despite a stark absence of Liberal promises of government intervention to start up mothballed fish plants. Such a plan - a three-year, $75-million subsidy to import and process fish in the outports - formed a central plank of Verge's platform. In contrast, Tobin promised rural economic renewal through a new government ministry that will promote more tourism and aquaculture-related businesses.

And in an interview with Maclean's, he attributed his electoral support in the outports to a tremendous change in attitude in his home province. "Outsiders assume that the people in rural Newfoundland are sitting there painting the boat every spring, hoping things will be the way they were yesterday," he declared. "I'm telling you that we aren't giving the people of Newfoundland and Labrador credit for the common sense they have - and have exhibited. They know that the fish are gone, they know that the income support won't last forever. They've already begun to adjust." Part of that process of adjustment, though, clearly involves high expectations of Tobin himself - expectations that the premier now must live up to.

Maclean's March 4, 1996