Wells Steps Down

Much as he denied it, Clyde Wells seemed to be following the script perfectly. For months it was rumored that he was on the verge of stepping down after 6½ turbulent years as premier of Newfoundland.

Wells Steps Down

Much as he denied it, Clyde Wells seemed to be following the script perfectly. For months it was rumored that he was on the verge of stepping down after 6½ turbulent years as premier of Newfoundland. Last week, the aloof, intellectual politician did just that, announcing that he would leave office as soon as his Liberal party picked a new leader, and would probably return to practising law. "Anonymity is a wonderful thing," Wells told Maclean's. "I welcome a return to it." Sooner, perhaps, than he thought. Even as he spoke the premier had already been pushed out of the limelight as the gaze of political junkies shifted to Corner Brook, Nfld., in the home riding of Brian Tobin, Canada's immensely popular federal fisheries minister. The hero of last year's turbot war with Spain, conveniently on vacation at home, said that he needed time to think about the new job opening - all of which fed rumors that Tobin's coronation as Wells's successor was already under way.

Newfoundland has always had a weakness for silver-tongued saviors. Joey Smallwood promised prosperity and comfort if Newfoundland joined Canada; Brian Peckford offered dreams of offshore oil riches. Wells, the son of a railway employee who went on to become a high-priced corporate lawyer, shared their eloquence. He also shared their willingness to win political points by taking on the big boys in Ottawa and the rest of Canada. But little else. His Liberals swept to power in 1989, just in time for the collapse of the cod fishery, which put 30,000 Newfoundlanders out of work and threatened the island's traditional way of life. Instead of his predecessors' grandiose promises, Wells offered a frugal, 1990s-style government which focused on cutting spending and using tax incentives to attract new business in an attempt to keep the leaky provincial ship afloat.

His efforts failed to put much of a dent in the unemployment rate - 16.9 per cent in November, compared with an average of 9.4 per cent across Canada - or staunch the exodus of Newfoundlanders from the Rock. "I'll leave my legacy to someone more objective than I am," Wells declared last week. He will undoubtedly be remembered as a politician who adhered steadfastly to his principles, most notably during his opposition to the Meech Lake accord and the special powers that would have been granted to Quebec. That impassioned stand helped him win a resounding second election victory in 1993, and earned him a reputation as folk hero in English Canada and villain inside Quebec. But some observers cast doubt on Wells's commitment to principle. "The question," explains Bill Rowe, an author and former provincial Liberal leader who now hosts a St. John's current affairs radio talk show, "will always be whether Wells was committed to his beliefs - or just plain obstinate."

In recent months, Wells's unwillingness to bend appeared to be wearing a bit thin. Announcing a round of provincial civil service job cuts just days before Christmas did little to combat his reputation, already fostered by the government's restraint policies, for being uncaring and bloodless. Wells also made enemies last fall when he forged ahead with plans to end 270 years of church control over the provincial school system. He did that even though 46 per cent of Newfoundlanders were against the idea when they voted during a September referendum on the question - and only 51.9 per cent of eligible voters bothered to cast a ballot. And if any one event seemed to symbolize the negative side of his determined nature it was his relentless attempt throughout 1994 and 1995 to privatize the provincial power corporation. Eventually, however, immense public opposition forced him to back down. "Wells was beginning to become a liability to his party," notes Mark Graesser, a political science professor at Memorial University in St. John's.

No surprise, then, that his government's approval rating has plummeted. In 1990, after Newfoundland's refusal to vote on the Meech Lake accord helped to kill the controversial constitutional package, 82 per cent of Newfoundlanders said they approved of the Liberals' performance. But according to a November, 1995, poll by Halifax-based Corporate Research Associates Ltd., only 45 per cent of Newfoundlanders now say that they are satisfied with the job the government is doing. As for the national icon, Wells's reputation suffered a blow during the waning days of the Quebec referendum campaign when he came out against "ever" granting Quebec the distinctiveness it has so long sought. In the changed climate of the mid-1990s, his remark was widely viewed as damaging to the federalist cause.

All the same, Wells, 58, seemed comfortable as he surveyed his political career last week. A native of tiny Buchans Junction, the avid sailor and skier now looks forward to having more time for his wife of 33 years, Eleanor - and to leaving the fishbowl existence which comes with the premier's office. His greatest regret, he told Maclean's, was the defeat of the Charlottetown constitutional accord in 1992, which he supported along with the other premiers and then-prime minister Brian Mulroney despite its inclusion of a watered-down distinct society provision for Quebec - only to see it voted down in a nationwide referendum. And he admitted that he may have tried to move too quickly on some of the economic and social reforms his government tried to introduce across Newfoundland. Overall, though, Wells seemed content in the belief that he leaves politics with his ideals intact. "One of the good things about making decisions based on certain principles is that you always know where you stand and are not making decisions based on who put forward a proposal or who is affected," he said.

No one has ever accused Wells of lacking conviction. His unshakable position on the Constitution - that Canada needs a strong federal government, that all Canadians are equal and that there should be no special powers for any part of the federation - was forged during his history and political science studies at Memorial and later at Dalhousie University law school in Halifax. In 1968, he resigned from Smallwood's cabinet because he disagreed with aspects of the premier's plan to industrialize the province. A decade later, Wells dissented from a Canadian Bar Association constitutional committee's proposal to replace the Senate with a body appointed by the provinces.

But it was the Meech Lake debate which showed the rest of Canada what Wells was made of. Even now the image endures - the cherubic-faced premier with the startling blue eyes standing in the Newfoundland House of Assembly, speaking passionately and without notes on why he could not allow the House to vote on the constitutional pact. His stance earned him the lasting enmity of Mulroney and made his name an obscenity among Quebec nationalists. But the sacks of supportive mail from across the country that poured into his St. John's office showed that his resolve had struck a chord with English-speaking Canadians. "If the same circumstances existed today, I would take precisely the same position," Wells said last week, showing a flash of the old fire.

As Wells prepares to depart from the political stage, Newfoundland could gain another leader with a knack for grabbing national attention. Tobin, who has ambitions to be prime minister, won the nickname Captain Canada for his willingness to tangle with Spain last year over the lowly turbot. And during the Quebec referendum campaign, he emerged as one of the federalist heroes - thanks to his role in mobilizing the more than 100,000 people who participated in the emotional Oct. 27 unity rally in downtown Montreal.

At 41, the former broadcaster is a master political showman and one of the rising stars in Prime Minister Jean Chrétien's cabinet. But an impending cabinet shuffle, perhaps as early as this week, could change that. So far, most of the attention has focused on Lloyd Axworthy's expected move from Human Resources to Foreign Affairs, where he will take over from André Ouellet. But government insiders say that unless something enticing is found for Tobin, who seems to have run out of challenges in the fisheries portfolio, the federal Liberals could lose one of their leading lights.

The federal Liberals would dearly love Tobin to stay in Ottawa. They view him as a consummate communicator who would be valuable in any portfolio with a tough sales job on its hands. But for all his ambition, say those who know Tobin, the fisheries minister is a Newfoundlander first. And if he chooses provincial politics, he would take power at a time of unusual promise in Newfoundland: the fishery shows signs of rebounding; the Hibernia offshore oil project is about to start pumping oil; and the huge nickel find in Voisey Bay, Labrador, is almost ready to begin production. According to the provincial government's own analysis, a major economic upswing should be under way in Newfoundland by 1998. "The prospects ahead are very good," Wells adds. "But my successor will face 18 to 24 months of significant problems before they get there."

Tobin's decision not to run would leave the race wide open. A number of provincial cabinet ministers - none of whom had a chance to shine under Wells's tight rein - are said to be interested. They include Industry, Trade and Technology Minister Chuck Furey; Justice Minister and Attorney General Ed Roberts; Finance Minister Paul Dicks; Minister of Works, Services and Transportation John Efford; and Lloyd Matthews, the health minister. Last week, though, Newfoundlanders waited for Tobin's next move. When a radio reporter reached him on a Newfoundland ski hill, he joked that he would go to the top of the mountain to look for guidance. From the top of the mountain, perhaps to the top of the Rock itself.

Maclean's January 8, 1996