Tobin Wins Newfoundland Election

A day after his Newfoundland Liberals returned to power, Brian Tobin was still smiling.

Tobin Wins Newfoundland Election

A day after his Newfoundland Liberals returned to power, Brian Tobin was still smiling. That morning, Quebec Premier Lucien Bouchard called to offer his congratulations - and to set up a meeting to kick-start talks between the two provinces over developing the Lower Churchill Falls hydro power project. A few hours later, still red-eyed from the whirlwind 23-day campaign, Tobin, 44, sat in his office scanning an earnings statement and news release from Inco Ltd. It seemed to contain more good news: a few carefully crafted sentences that suggested the base-metals giant is willing to go back to the negotiating table over the $4.3-billion nickel deposit in Voisey's Bay, Labrador. Tobin has vowed it will never be developed unless Inco lives up to its earlier promise to build a smelter-refinery complex in Newfoundland. "This is certainly a different tone than we've heard in the past from the company," he told Maclean's. "We'll see whether or not there's a basis to resume negotiations over the next month or two."

For a premier just eight hours into a new mandate, that certainly seemed like a promising start. And it may be just the thing to take people's minds off the main question still dogging Tobin after the whirlwind campaign. The timing of the election call - only three years into the Liberals' mandate and with the government well ahead in the polls - left even hard-core party loyalists doubting Tobin's explanation that he needed a new mandate to negotiate with Quebec and Inco over resource development. Their suspicion: the early election would leave him ready to jump into the federal Liberal leadership race if Jean Chrétien steps down.

Voters were skeptical enough to cut the Liberals from 36 to 32 seats and put 14 Tories and two New Democrats into the province's House of Assembly - an increase of four and one, respectively (one seat was previously held by an Independent). But the Liberals' showing was still a major accomplishment for a government that had to institute harsh budget cuts - and for a premier who, much as he denies it, is still thought to be eyeing bigger things. "I don't know whether he can become prime minister," says Stephen Tomblin, a political science professor at Memorial University in St. John's. "But this election proves Tobin is the real thing."

By now, Tobin has answered the federal leadership question so many times it sounds like a well-rehearsed mantra: Jean Chrétien's job is not open. Besides, Tobin contends he is happy simply being premier of Newfoundland and Labrador. "It is the only job that I've applied for - it is the only job today that I want," he said last week. It is also a job that looks undeniably more enticing today than it did in 1996 when Tobin left Ottawa, where he was the high-flying fisheries minister, for a coronation as provincial Grit leader after Clyde Wells stepped down. Three years later, the Hibernia oilfield is pumping at near-capacity and huge increases in crab and shrimp catches have pushed the value of fish landings to an all-time high - even if the industry's employment figures are only a fraction of what they were before the cod fishery was shut down in 1992. The upshot: most forecasters predict that in 1999 Newfoundland will top the nation in economic growth for the second straight year.

That fits right into Tobin's ambitious plans. He promises to reinvest in the province's health-care system. He wants to continue the restructuring of the education system, which began when his government brought in new legislation ending centuries of church control over schools. But his most vivid dream is that of every Newfoundland premier since Confederation: ensuring that the province, with its chronically high unemployment rate and steady outflow of people to other provinces, someday becomes as prosperous as the rest of Canada (Newfoundland's unemployment rate is now 17.6 per cent, 9.8 percentage points higher than the national average; in 1997-1998 the province endured a net loss of 10,000 people).

Tobin says he wants to turn Newfoundland into something akin to Ireland - another small, once-impoverished island on the edge of a huge, wealthy continent that has used a combination of information technology, tourism and manufacturing to forge one of the great economic miracles of the late 1990s. Running a government too small and financially strapped to directly create jobs, he vows to keep the province's economic momentum going by providing entrepreneurs with tax breaks and changing the mind-set of Newfoundlanders so that they "stand on their own two feet and move forward."

Most of all, though, he seems to be counting on resource megaprojects to give his province real economic fizz. By making Voisey's Bay and Churchill Falls election issues, Tobin tied his own future to the negotiations. Last week, with his electoral majority intact and some potential breakthroughs looming in those two areas, that approach looked like a winner. But negotiations have a habit of falling apart, and Tobin still faces the challenge of delivering to Newfoundlanders what he promised on the campaign trail.

Maclean's February 22, 1999