Provincial Politics 1972-2001
The Progressive Conservative party led by Frank Moores came to power in 1972
with the promise of greater democracy in government. Moores undertook a much
needed reorganization of the cabinet and government departments, so that
ministers had greater control over their areas of responsibility than had been
the case. Unfortunately, much of his government's attention was absorbed by the
completion of large projects begun under the Liberals, such as the Come By Chance
oil refinery and the Stephenville linerboard mill. Both these ill-advised
projects cost the government a great deal of money and added to the public debt
at a time when the growth of the provincial economy had slowed.
Linerboard Mill, Stephenville, n.d.
representation of the Stephenville linerboard mill. This project, along with
the Come By Chance oil refinery, added heavily to the public
Artist unknown. Courtesy of the Centre for Newfoundland Studies Archives
(Coll - 75, 5.04.076), Memorial University of Newfoundland Library,
St. John's, Newfoundland.
It became apparent after 1973 that the deal between Newfoundland and
Hydro-Québec for the development of the Churchill Falls power development had
also been ill-advised, since the profits from higher energy costs went to Québec.
The deal reinforced the sense that Newfoundland's governments had given away
resources to foreign capitalists for a few short-term jobs.
Moores set out to compensate for Smallwood's perceived blunders through series
of initiatives to gain greater control over natural resources.
Frank Moores (1933-2005), n.d.
Moores served as premier of Newfoundland from 1972-1979.
Photo by Valerie Lilly Studios. Courtesy of the Centre for Newfoundland
Studies Archives (Coll - 75, 5.04.840), Memorial University of Newfoundland Library,
St. John's, Newfoundland.
The new government supported Ottawa's extension of fisheries jurisdiction
over the continental shelf, for example, and encouraged the exploration of
the Grand Banks for offshore oil.
The Peckford Government
These resource policies continued after 1979 when the Conservative leadership
passed to A. Brian Peckford, who as Energy Minister in Moores' government, had
been involved in setting provincial policy toward the oil and gas sector. The
promise that this industry might enrich the province as it had Alberta, held out
the hope that Newfoundlanders and Labradorians might, at long last, be masters
in their own house.
Peckford's political persona exemplified several characteristics of
Newfoundlanders who had grown up during the Smallwood era. He had a combative
relationship with Ottawa, fighting for federal policies which would benefit his
province. He tapped into a resurgent provincial nationalism and successfully
won several elections by arguing that he was going to fight for a better deal
within Confederation for Newfoundland and Labrador, and end the province's
“inferiority complex”. Responding to those Newfoundlanders and Labradorians
who now questioned whether their predecessors had made the right decision in
1948, Peckford tried to create a stronger province, and supported those premiers
who wanted to decentralise the Canadian state. His rhetoric became strident after
1984, when the Supreme Court of Canada decided that the seabed resources of the
continental shelf belonged to the federal government. The bitterness caused by
this decision was softened when the Government of Canada agreed to a joint
federal-provincial management board, and to share oil and gas royalties.
The nationalist agenda had few concrete results. The electorate tired of
Peckford's combativeness when it failed to achieve concrete results, and became
dismayed by his government's subsidisation of an unsuccessful hydroponic cucumber
farming business. The Sunday Express newspaper did much to bring this story to
light and ultimately encouraged Peckford's resignation. The Progressive
Conservatives had some successes during their period in power (1972-1989), but
the economy remained weak and the province continued to experience high
unemployment, out-migration and government deficits. Peckford's promise of a
“better tomorrow” had not been realized.
The Liberal Revival
Much as the Progressive Conservatives had languished during heyday of
Smallwood between 1949 and 1968, the 1970s and 1980s were a difficult time for
the Liberal party. Smallwood's attempt at a comeback, heading a “Liberal Reform Party”
in 1975, siphoned off votes from the Liberal party led by Edward Roberts,
and helped reelect Moores. While many districts in rural Newfoundland and
Labrador continued to elect Liberals after 1979, a succession of Liberal
party leaders were unable to counter Peckford's populist rhetoric. But when
the Peckford government's combative style failed to live up to the high
expectations, and Smallwood's memory no longer plagued the Liberal party,
the time for a change arrived.
Voters turned to the Liberals, now led by Clyde Wells, who seemed the opposite
of Peckford, less passionate and more business-like. Elected in 1989, the new
Liberal government immediately became embroiled in the controversy surrounding
the proposals contained in the Meech Lake Accord to amend the Canadian
constitution. Wells favoured a strong federal government and the equality of the
provinces, and opposed a deal which would have granted the Province of Québec a
different constitutional status within the federation. On the whole, however,
relations between the two levels of government were friendly compared to the
Peckford years, even though the federal government cut transfer payments to the
||Clyde Wells (1937- ), 1993
Clyde Wells became Newfoundland's fifth premier in 1989.
Reproduced by permission of The Newfoundland Herald.
From The Newfoundland Herald 48:18 (St. John's: The Newfoundland Herald,
In keeping with the more conservative political climate of the 1990s and the
precarious fiscal position of the province, Wells embarked on a program of
selling government-owned corporations and cutbacks within the civil service. The
number of government employees was cut, and those that remained had to live with
a wage freeze. Despite the anger of government workers, Wells retained the
support of most voters. His unsuccessful attempt to “privatise” the Crown
corporation Newfoundland Hydro, however, showed how his faith in private
enterprise was out of step with Newfoundlanders' anxiety about losing control
over their resources.
In 1992 the collapse of the cod fishery caused the federal government to shut
down the industry that had sustained many Newfoundland communities from their
beginnings. Fortunately, jobs associated with the development of the offshore
Hibernia oil field, and the growth of fisheries for other species prevented the
collapse of the economy, and with it government revenue - though special
government programmes of compensation for the moratorium on fishing northern cod
and out migration were also significant factors.
The Hibernia Platform, ca. 1997.
Jobs associated with the development
of the offshore Hibernia oil field helped to prevent the collapse of the economy when the
federal government shut down the cod fishery.
Reproduced by permission of Hibernia Public Affairs. From the Hibernia Frontier
2:6 (St. John's, NF: Hibernia Public Affairs, ©1997) 5.
In 1996, Wells was replaced as Liberal leader and premier by Brian Tobin, a
former federal MP and cabinet minister. Tobin maintained a close relationship
with Ottawa, and his government benefited from a reviving fishery and offshore
oil development. In the face of anxiety over the loss of control over resources
Tobin earned much political popularity by his tough stand insisting that the
nickel from the newly discovered ore deposit at Voisey's Bay be smelted and
refined in this province. He was also an effective communicator who, in
comparison to Wells, seemed more at ease in politics. Tobin used his popularity
to push forward the desegregation of Newfoundland schools which had been
organized along denominational lines since the mid-19th century. Tobin returned
to federal politics in 2000, and in 2001 the Liberal party and government was led
by Roger Grimes.
Opposition parties in post-confederation Newfoundland have often had
difficulties maintaining momentum. After Peckford's resignation the Progressive
Conservatives went through a succession of leaders, some of whom were
ineffectual. In 2001, lawyer and businessman Danny Williams became the most
recent hope to return the Tories to power. Third parties have been shut out of
government, with the New Democratic Party being unable to break out of holding
a couple of seats at best.
While the sectarian divisions of Newfoundland politics that had existed for
most of the 19th and 20th centuries are no longer dominant, the questions of
economic development and the rural-urban divisions are still the source of
political division. The long-term discrepancy between incomes in Newfoundland
and the Canadian average, and the difficulties of having Newfoundlanders and
Labradorians benefit from the development of their resources, also ensure that
the constitutional arrangement of confederation will continue to be the subjects
of political debate.
©2001, Jeff A. Webb
Updated July, 2005