No one tells it as it is quite like Bill Rowe, and after a lifetime spent as both a politician and a political observer/commentator, he makes no apologies in his latest literary endeavour
In his latest book, The Worst and Best of the Premiers and Some We Never Had: A Political Report Card, Bill Rowe proves he’s not out to make – or even keep – friends. When asked about going out on a limb yet again by putting his cards on the table so to speak, Rowe smiles.
“I love doing these warts and all type of books. I’m beholden to no one. I couldn’t care less about anyone. Patrick O’Flaherty (a well-known Newfoundland writer, teacher and historian), my great friend who died tragically a short time ago, he and I had a coffee when I had this book mostly done, and he said; excellent! At least you will get rid of the last few of your political friends who are still hanging on. And that was his attitude towards it, and that’s my attitude towards it. I don’t want any friends in politics. I just want to tell it like it is because of my long life of involvement in politics since confederation,” says Rowe.
And involved he was. In fact, Rowe recalls political memories as far back as childhood, sharing his take on hearing Joey Smallwood and Peter Cashin’s voices blaring from loudspeakers as they circled around in airplanes promising that sunny days and Confederation went hand-in-hand. Since those early days, Rowe’s involvement with this province’s first premier was an interesting one.
“I had just finished law school when the ‘66 election came along. Joey had, that year, started to draw down his old age pension. He was 65, so he was young now right, but back then he thought he was old and a lot of other people thought he was old at that age, so Joey set about getting a bunch of young turks in there so he attracted people who became a rod for his own back; (John) Crosbie, Clyde Wells Alex Hickman, Ed Roberts, myself, John Nolan, Bill Callahan and on and on and on; young people who had carved out a bit of a name for themselves in other areas. He got them all in there to show how youthful and young his government was and in the 1966 election it seemed to work because he got all but three seats in the House of Assembly. But within a couple of years, as a result of Crosbie and Wells, and others as well, the cracks started to show. So by 1967/68 and beyond Joey and the Liberal government were really on the skids.”
For this latest Flanker Press release, Rowe looked back and reflected on Joey and others – like his own sometimes political enemy, John Crosbie – with the added luxury of time and hindsight.
‘Saving Our Bacon’
“John Crosbie, who I gave among the highest marks, tied for first place with Joey Smallwood, was a political opponent of mine as well during most of his life here provincially, not federally of course, and some people were saying to me; John Crosbie was tearing the hide off you and you were tearing the hide off him, how could you give him such a high mark?”
Rowe shares that Crosbie’s failure to win leadership both provincially and federally paled in comparison to what he did achieve. Besides being one of the “most loved” federal leadership candidates in the ‘83 convention, Crosbie achieved much for this province according to Rowe.
“I gave Crosbie high marks because I think in retrospect, looking at it all, an educated gut feeling you might say, plus what I know about him and watching him in action and all that, I think he was by far the best federal minister that this province has ever had. He saved our bacon many times.” From oil, to fish to battles with Quebec, Crosbie never backed away from a fight. “So Quebec was saying, ah, let them starve to death, tow em out to sea and sink em, was what Quebec’s attitude was and Crosbie was able to convince the federal government to put more money into the salvation of the fishery employees, workers and fishermen/fisherwomen against all this kind of criticism.”
‘A Provincial Hero’
Add to that his hand in the Free Trade Agreement with the United States, and you have a provincial hero of sorts, says Rowe. “(The Free Trade Agreement) must be good if (Donald) Trump is dead against it. It has to be good. Crosbie, at the federal level and in terms of what he did for this province, was a tremendous federal minister and as I say, I think by far the best this province has ever produced.”
Talking political enemies of Crosbie, Rowe returns to thoughts of Smallwood.
“And against him was Joey Smallwood who was his opponent, his political enemy … Smallwood of course, having dragged Newfoundland and Labrador kicking and screaming into Confederation, then during the 23 years, the long 23 years – felt like it was never going to end to a lot of people – he showed some vision with regard to first of all getting (Jack) Pickersgill as the federal minister, the most powerful man in Canada at the time, and the Janeway and the new university and the new hospital and the medical school and the Arts and Culture Centre and so on. The man showed vision. He might have been off the wall in many respects and maybe he governed by whim, whimsical sort of impulse an awful lot, but the fact is the man showed vision. So in terms of Confederation and his tenure as premier, (Smallwood) had to be at the top too, so I’ve tied Crosbie and Smallwood.”
An Honest Downfall
But there’s over 40 party leaders graded in this book with honourable mention going to many of the off-side players as well. From our own Geoff Stirling to Don Jamieson, Ches Crosbie right on up to and including current premier Dwight Ball, Rowe pulls no punches.
On former NDP leader Earl McCurdy, Rowe says; “he didn’t flourish. He didn’t thrive… I had to tell the truth simply because I knew and respected him in other spheres. I couldn’t give him a mark he wasn’t entitled to so I gave him a lower mark than he’d probably like. He’s gone now but I think he recognized that he was perhaps a little bit of a fish out of water.”
On Kathy Dunderdale; “looking back on her I realized that this was a woman who was full of integrity, who was brutally honest. That was her problem, probably her downfall. She could not tell anything but the truth when she was speaking and of course with #Darknl and the Burton Winters tragedy, some of her words there had her characterized as tone deaf politically or having a tin ear politically and it alienated some of her own supporters and caucus members. And I made the point that some of the people who were dragged in … on her skirts during the election that she won were among the first to, I wouldn’t say the first to knife her in the back, but nudge her out the door somewhat when the time came.”
On Lynn Verge; “as a woman and as a politician she was positively superb … she was good enough politically to beat Clyde Wells in his own district.”
Lorraine Michael also gets high praise. “She, in spite of the fact that the Liberals were the official opposition, she carried the opposition role almost solely on her own shoulders while she was in there.”
Rowe’s take on Danny Williams has changed since giving him a high grade in his Danny Williams – The War With Ottawa. Without giving too much away, Rowe says; “I’ve given him a lower grade than I had given him and it will be interesting to see how people react. They may think I still graded him too high … but it will be very interesting what people think about it. I fully expect to get a political crowbar across the head as a result of some of the grades I’ve given.”
The Jury is Still out
As to our current premier, while Rowe says he’s graded him, the jury is still out. “We will see what it’s like the end of his first term, a full four years, before I can grade him properly. I may have to do a revised edition of this book,” he says with laugh.
Rowe acknowledges he’s working on a fiction book next, however there may be more political books to follow. ”From Confederation right up to now, federally and provincially, I have a lot to put between covers… I just want to tell it like it is, as I remember it.” If someone doesn’t agree with his recollections, too bad, he says. “My response to that … is if you don’t agree with what I’m saying, write your own damn book. I’m going to write mine.”