John Crosbie has long been a force to be reckoned with. Besides his days in provincial politics where he served provincially as a cabinet minister under premiers Joey Smallwood (Liberal) and Frank Moores (Progressive Conservative), he also served in the federal cabinets of both Joe Clark and Brian Mulroney and ran – in quite dramatic and in full-on Crosbie style – for the leadership of the federal Tory party.
Yes, the 87-year-old Crosbie is a legend in this province and beyond for his political prowess, of that there’s little doubt. But he’s also known for something else too; his … how shall we say this delicately? Ah, why bother? The man himself wouldn’t want it any other way! Crosbie’s perhaps known best for his fightin’ ways and sharp tongue!
No Holds Barred
He doesn’t shy away from that fact either, celebrating it in his autobiography, No Holds Barred: My Life in Politics.
On the day we visit, Crosbie is surrounded by his memories – clippings from the early days of Confederation, his own time in politics and a well-preserved newspaper that looked back at 20 years of union with Canada.
Crosbie himself made the news often of course, though it wasn’t always favourable. “There’s 50 or so cartoons we have framed where someone was making fun of some feature, particularly my tongue,” he says with a twinkle in his eye. Ray Guy was one columnist who seemed to enjoy taking pen to paper when it came to Crosbie.
“If Ray Guy had me in his sights, good. I would always get a great chuckle out of it. I wouldn’t blame him for pointing out any faults that I might have. Although, I don’t think I have any faults at all.”
There’s that twinkle again.
“As for political cartoons, I was never offended. As a politician, I think it’s valuable to be noticed whether they are supportive of you or critical of you. If you are in politics you need to be noticed and the main thing is to be noticed. There wasn’t any bad press. Now, if I thought the press were misquoting me, I would try to correct it or take issue with them on it, but otherwise, they were free to do whatever they thought right.”
Crosbie even has a sense of humour about some of his less than flattering press. It was while he served in portfolios, including fisheries under PM Brian Mulroney that his talent for headline-grabbing – for very politically incorrect commentary – flourished.
During one parliamentary debate he told Liberal MP Sheila Copps to: “Just quieten down, baby.” Copps apparently never forgot that exchange, later calling her autobiography Nobody’s Baby.
Then, at a 1990 fundraising dinner in Victoria, he said Copps made him think of the song lyrics, “Pass the tequila, Sheila, and lay down and love me again.”
Crosbie chuckles. “I made the news quite a bit and of course I didn’t mind that because any politician wants to be noticed,” he said.
The topic of Confederation and Joey Smallwood pops up. Crosbie served under Smallwood’s Liberals until a falling-out over Joey’s “develop or perish” policies came to a head. A pulp and paper mill project being pushed by John Sheehan and a linerboard project of John C. Doyle caused Crosbie and Clyde Wells to have some heated debates with their boss before both finally crossed the floor in protest.
“Smallwood and I had quite a convoluted relationship. You couldn’t say we were friends right to the end because we fell out along the way,” Crosbie says, though he insists it was never personal.
In fact, he points out the fact that it was his idea to name one of Marine Atlantic’s ferries the Joseph and Clara Smallwood.
‘How Do I Answer That?’
Crosbie’s daughter Beth points out that adding “Clara” to the vessel’s name was something she was proud of her father for doing. “That was the start of women coming into the foreground and being recognized for their contribution,” she says, adding, “you’ve always liked women, haven’t you dad?” She quickly realizes the error in that perhaps not-so-innocent statement when her father starts to smile slyly.
“Now, how do I answer that …” he begins.
“Don’t ruin it dad…” Beth cautions with a laugh of her own. “I meant respected.”
He clears his throat dramatically before continuing; “Yes, I’m very fond of women. (laughter) Without women, where would we be? I’ve always tried to listen to women and their opinions and tried to keep on their side and be sympathetic to what they might want. That’s the only side you can take if you want to be a good politician.”
Crosbie’s father, Ches, died in 1963, but the last words he said to his son before he passed were pretty direct; stay clear of Joey.
“The last time I saw my father he said, ‘You stay clear of Joey Smallwood and have nothing to do with him. Avoid getting involved with Joey Smallwood.’”
And the senior Crosbie would know. Crosbie’s father had been a delegate to the Newfoundland National Convention. Originally in favour of Responsible Government, he and Herald founder Geoff Stirling formed the Party for Economic Union with the United States instead of supporting Smallwood and Confederation with Canada. As such, Ches Crosbie was an opponent of Smallwood from the get-go.
Crosbie’s father later served as a member of the seven-person delegation sent to Ottawa to negotiate the final Terms of Union with Canada, famously refusing to sign the final document, citing objections to the deal’s financial terms.
With Newfoundland’s Confederation with Canada approaching the 70-year mark, and with his family’s role in it well documented, what’s his thoughts on it all today? It’s old news, he says.
“I don’t think young people think one way or another about Confederation. We’re in Confederation and we’ve been there now for almost 70 years and they accept it and young people, they’ve got their problems. And we still have lots of problems and we need good governments to resolve those problems.”
When he reflects on Confederation, was it good for Newfoundland?
“I would never say I thought it was a good idea, but once the decision was made you had no choice but to go with it,” he says matter-of-factly. He grew up in a household where strong, though measured, opinions reigned supreme.
“My father proposed that we’d be better off to consider association with the United States. I lived and was brought up in St. John’s West on Water Street and my father knew Joey Smallwood before in business matters and I was familiar with my father’s opinion on Confederation and on Joey himself and his reasons for that.”
But all things considered, Confederation has been good for this province, he says. “Confederation has been a pretty positive thing for Newfoundland and we’ve done well in Confederation, as well as could reasonably be expected, so I’m not disappointed in the fact that eventually we entered Confederation. I think that it’s turned out on a whole as a positive thing for Newfoundlanders.”
Does he reflect much on the falling out with Joey? Or on leaving the Liberals for the PCs? Not often, he says, but when he does think back, it’s always to acknowledge he has no regrets.
“I represented several parties. I never had any hesitation to change parties. All parties have got something to be said for them and if I got fed up with one party and pissed off with whatever they were doing, I was always quite willing to go with another party, and I didn’t suffer any bad feelings of conscience or anything as a result. I think politics is probably the most difficult profession one can get oneself involved with, but for me, I’ve had no regrets.”
Are them fightin’ words? He laughs, pointing out that besides being known for ‘rowing,’ he also had some great political relationships.
“The best Prime Minister that we’ve had since ’49? It would be difficult to pick one because we’ve had some very fine men, though Brian Mulroney would probably be my favourite politician. He’s the one I got along best with. I enjoyed being involved in his cabinet. It was a congenial atmosphere because you could always express your opinion and if you had a different opinion than his and you disagreed with him in cabinet or expressed a different opinion, it didn’t cause any difficulty with him. He accepted the fact that you had the right to your own opinion and he welcomed you to express your opinion, so my favourite prime minister during my years in politics was Mulroney. I give him high marks for being a good PM for Canada, and for Newfoundland.”
What about premiers? Brian Peckford was a hard worker, he says, but he enjoyed working with Frank Moores.
“When I was with Frank’s government, I really ran the government. I won’t be critical of him because he gave me lots of room to do what he wanted me to do, which was run the government, because he was more interested in running after other things. (laughter) He liked fishing and hunting and he was very good at it.”
Next week: Part 2
Tune in next week as John Crosbie talks the importance of family ties, including weighing in on what he thinks of his son’s entrance into the political arena. Plus, what’s been the secret to Crosbie’s political success and what would he like to be remembered for?