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Joan Sullivan: In-the-know chronicle tainted with casual crassness

Bill Rowe first published as a novelist, but recently the former politician and talk radio host has produced a spate of non-fiction memoir-ish books on modern and current provincial and national politics.

These deliver his take on how policies and scandals unfold, or lurch across a landscape of governance peopled with figures of various ambitions and capability. As the subtitle indicates, this is Rowe’s measure of the mettle of, largely, post-Confederation principal actors, including the leaders of all the parties, even those who never were elected and whose parties never won a seat under their watch.

As provincial election results tend to seesaw from one side of the House of Assembly to the other, and some interim leaders never sought such acclaim, but had that honour thrust upon them, this is a sizable tribe, and I don’t think there’s another volume that gathers these persons in such a way.

There are two significant exceptions. The first is Ches Crosbie, who introduced the idea of Economic Union with America into the 1940s debate over Newfoundland’s political future; Rowe awards him 75 per cent: “He built better than he knew.” The second is John Crosbie, who punched above his weight federally, and possessed “the wit to marry a remarkable woman, but deducting something for his failure to realize his own ambition to become premier of the province — 85%.”

And some, like Don Jamieson, though briefly provincial Liberal leader, were better known in other roles. “During the Second World War, he gravitated toward the entertainment of troops and producing radio broadcasts for servicemen. He was finding what would be his chief vocation in life as a radio, and later a TV, broadcaster with an impressive pipe organ voice.” Not that Jamieson didn’t fit his role on the federal scene. When he was first elected to the House of Commons in a byelection in Burin-Burgeo, “Former Prime Minister John Diefenbaker was reported to have remarked that Jamieson’s first speech in the House was the best maiden speech he had ever heard.”

The chapters are divided by character, with varying lengths, and the most-hefty portion goes to Smallwood. Despite giving him the space, Rowe doesn’t remember him with much respect or affection, summarizing him with a trenchant near-profanity. (Scattered, casual crassness, like a reference to Jamieson’s physique, is one of the book’s blemishes.)

But many are more “footnote people,” like Harry Mews, Sam Drover, or Tom Burgess, those who founded The United Newfoundland Party or The New Labrador Party, or the newspaper The Newfoundland Examiner, or designed the distinctive Labrador flag, or laid the first foundations of the NDP.

Each chapter sketches in basic biographical and career background: Peter Fenwick was born in St. Thomas, Ont., in 1944, arriving in Cape St. George in 1968, and debuting inauspiciously in federal politics with 3.7 per cent of the vote.

Besides such data, it’s all Rowe’s personal opinion, often revised from earlier personal opinion. He remained un-fond of Clyde Wells, but now attributes part of Wells’ ineffective time as premier (earning a grade of just 60 per cent) to a particular aide, “a self-glorifies Internet troll. I have only a couple of hazy memories of seeing him skulking around the premier’s office – a mousy little fellow not physically constituted to draw very much favourable attention to himself.”

And then there’s Ed Byrne ... Peckford, though, comes up a few notches: “I’m not arguing that Peckford’s waste of $20 million on Sprung should be forgotten or ignored. What I’m saying is that, stacked up against what he accomplished, the Sprung farce was small potatoes. Brian Peckford was one of our very good premiers. 75%.”

He thinks highly of Judy Foote (“esteemed”) and Lynn Verge; though Verge never won top office she personally defeated Wells and “was a constant thorn in Wells’s side, including, notably, arguing against Wells’s plan to privatize Newfoundland Hydro, and helping to prevent the sale.” And he’s more sympathetic than you might expect to Kathy Dunderdale: “Basically, at the end, she’d been stabbed in the back by the very supporters who had practically danced in the streets over being dragged into government on her skirts. I was sorry she didn’t stay the course and run in the next election to see if she could turn the political situation around, just as Christy Clark had done in B.C.” She gets 65 per cent.

The report card wraps with an assessment of Dwight Ball’s mishaps and missteps to date (“Ed Martin’s resignation or dismissal, whatever it was”).

Brisk, chatty, in-the-know, this chronicle covers events in which Rowe was often a participant and has both memory and a view of them. This is not a definitive tome but a breezy, gossipy companion to drier, more fact-based research. There are some typos, for example missing page numbers in the Index. Borrowing Rowe’s methodology, let’s say this “Report Card” merits a fairly solid B.


Joan Sullivan is editor of Newfoundland Quarterly magazine. She reviews both fiction and non-fiction for The Telegram.

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