Nfld. & Labrador·Point of View

Before anyone goes to Ottawa, we need to get our own house in order

Last week, Bob Hallett argued it's time for Ottawa to help N.L. and to right a historical wrong. Former premier Brian Peckford has a different view.

Brian Peckford, who was premier of N.L. from 1979 to 1989, has a different take on calls for federal help

Brian Peckford served as premier of Newfoundland and Labrador from 1979 to 1989. (Submitted)

One of the ideas that Joey Smallwood, Newfoundland and Labrador's first premier, liked to advance was how grateful we should all be for Confederation.

Of course, having being one of the supporters of such an enterprise it was not surprising that he would utter such words after the project was successfully completed.

Smallwood reminded us all of this every chance he got, over decades in power.

There was and is much to celebrate about being part of Canada. However, that does not mean that we should lie down and watch the goodies from Ottawa roll in.

We are, after all, a Confederation where powers are shared between the provinces and the federal government. Provinces have powers of taxation and primary responsibility in health, education and natural resource development. The province has obligations it must discharge.

It is in this context that I must address the recent commentary by Bob Hallett for CBC Newfoundland and Labrador.

While healthy commentary is long overdue in Newfoundland and Labrador, especially concerning the Muskrat Falls project and its disastrous impact upon the province, one is struck by the lateness of the intervention.

Individuals like Des Sullivan, David Vardy and Ron Penney were lone wolves attempting to bring to the province's attention the negative effects of this sad project. I wrote the premier of the province in 2012 concerning the request for an expert review panel.

Sadly, many experts arrived after the fact.

I urged the present premier, Dwight Ball, to have a forensic audit and if the results showed trouble, to have a full inquiry. He rejected that at the time, only to reverse course a few months later.

One of the themes running through our history is our inability to get ahead of the trends and arrest economic and financial trouble, or to avoid questionable deals. The railway, the pulp and paper mills, the Terms of Confederation on the fishery, and the John C. Doyle and John Shaheen deals are some dramatic examples.

When we did do something right, like a reciprocity treaty with the U.S. in the late 1800s, it was vetoed by Canada.

The failure of self-government led to having conditions placed on any help from Britain — that being the Amulree Commission and a commission to govern us. We found ourselves at the mercy of others.

Hence, little leverage.

A few years later we were promised a return to responsible government, and then for the people to decide on the future. But having little leverage, this did not happen. Again, we found ourselves at the mercy of others.

Former prime minister Brian Mulroney and Peckford sign the Atlantic Accord at the Hotel Newfoundland in St. John's in 1985. (CBC)

The major flaw of Confederation in 1949 was the transfer of effective control of our main industry, the fishery, to Ottawa. That again left us with little leverage. Once more, we found ourselves at the mercy of others.

And then we did another thing right, like the Atlantic Accord, only we now allow ourselves to see its valuable provisions being eroded and weakened. What we gained, we are allowing to be taken away as we speak.

Time to get our house in order

The problem now, as before, is by putting ourselves in a very vulnerable position we are at the mercy of others and then agreement will be to the benefit of others — and only sufficient to keep us afloat.

It was hoped that the Atlantic Accord saw us breaking that historic trend, no longer being as vulnerable and forced to go cap in hand to others.

The province saw everything as a priority.

Hence, what must be done first in order to be able to bargain with at least some cards in our arsenal is to get our own house in order.

Then we can call upon the moral argument and other reasons why the federal government should assist us again. But we have little leverage when our spending is out of control, with the largest public sector expenditures in Atlantic Canada according to a report by the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies.

Rather than use its oil revenues — more than $20 billion in royalties alone  wisely and prioritize, the province saw everything as a priority. It is this that Mr. Hallett, and others who think like him, must address first so we do not find ourselves in the same boat as in the 1930s and in 1949. Ironically, my first book, published in 1982, was titled The Past In The Present.

There was one incident in the more distant past when we stood up and made a difference for our place. It was in the 1850s, when the then-premier and the leader of the opposition went to London and had the colonial secretary, Henry Labouchere, cancel provisions of an agreement that would have increased fishing privileges to France.

Newfoundland and Labrador must use that spirit again to:

  • Acknowledge our billion-dollar mistake.
  • Stop ceding what has already been won.
  • Show prudence and financial responsibility in discharging our obligations as a province.

Then, and only then, shall we break from the past and have some leverage to right the ship and seek Ottawa's assistance.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

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