Tobin Fights Fish War at the UN

The year was 1980 and a 25-year-old Brian Tobin badly needed advice. Grit organizers wanted Tobin, a cocky former radio disc jockey, television newscaster and provincial Liberal party operative, to run in a traditionally Tory riding on Newfoundland's west coast.

Tobin Fights Fish War at the UN

The year was 1980 and a 25-year-old Brian Tobin badly needed advice. Grit organizers wanted Tobin, a cocky former radio disc jockey, television newscaster and provincial Liberal party operative, to run in a traditionally Tory riding on Newfoundland's west coast. Tobin feared that he was simply being wooed as election cannon fodder. But Bill Rowe - his boss while Newfoundland Liberal leader and the man he had approached for advice - convincingly argued that running for the federal seat would at least raise his profile for the next provincial election. "Well, here goes nothing," a rueful Tobin said, looking back over his shoulder as he headed for the door. Then he was gone - a forlorn figure lugging a single battered suitcase, setting out on a campaign that even his own party felt was unwinnable.

Fast-forward to last week and the UN General Assembly in New York City. It was hard to reconcile the sad image of 15 years ago with the polished, commanding figure who sat arguing before a fishery conference that Canada was justified in boldly acting to curb turbot fishing in waters outside its 200-mile territorial limit. Or with the smooth-talking spin doctor who stole the show in Canada's turbot war with the European Union (EU) through a brilliantly staged news conference in which he stood aboard a barge in the East River and dramatically displayed an illegally sized net from the Estai, the Spanish trawler that Canada seized on March 9 while it fished for turbot along the Grand Banks.

By week's end, all the theatrics - and the diplomatic trench work - appeared to be paying off. Canada had won new allies in the transatlantic battle - particularly in Britain, where Prime Minister John Major told the British House of Commons that "Canada is quite right to take a tough line on enforcement." And an agreement seemed at hand that would end the tense dispute sparked by Canada's determination to stop European boats from catching turbot in the sections of the Grand Banks outside Canadian waters known as the nose and tail. The pact taking shape late last week would allow for closer monitoring and enforcement of turbot catches in the contentious area outside Canada's jurisdiction. If such an agreement is reached, it would be a clear victory for the Canadian government, which maintains that foreigners are threatening the future of one of the few Atlantic fisheries still open. The chief tradeoff: a bigger share of the turbot catch for Spain, Portugal and other EU countries who argue that they have been shortchanged in quotas set by the Northwest Atlantic Fisheries Organization (NAFO).

Much as it might seem like a compromise, facing down the EU appears to have done wonders for a Canadian populace soured by economic hardship and the impending Quebec referendum. And there is little doubt as to who is the hero of the hour: "Terrific Tobin" as the adoring British tabloid press dubbed him. Last week, the loquacious fisheries minister strode into the House of Commons in Ottawa to a standing ovation from both sides of the House and good-natured heckling by fellow Liberals who shouted "Academy Award" as he took his seat. As Foreign Affairs Minister André Ouellet, whose department is involved in negotiations for the fish pact, put it: "He [Tobin], under a lot of pressure, performed remarkably well, with a lot of skill and very, very strong conviction. He is certainly a well-deserved hero."

Heady stuff for a fireman's son who grew up on an American air force base in Stephenville, Nfld., where his father was a civilian employee. There were no hints of future glory in Tobin's early years: he was an undistinguished student at Memorial University of Newfoundland in St. John's, who went on to become a long-haired disc jockey in Goose Bay and then later earned the nickname "Thumbs Tobin" because of his clumsiness in the control booth of a St. John's radio station. His epiphany came when he answered a newspaper ad in 1977 to become executive assistant to Rowe, leader of the Newfoundland Liberal party, which was then the official opposition to Frank Moore's Tory government. "He was a natural for the job," recalls Rowe, now a radio talk-show host, author and lawyer in St. John's. "The only complaint was that the other members of caucus thought he was too cocky, too willing to express his opinion."

Some things never change. In 1980, Tobin entered the House of Commons, after confounding the experts and winning his riding, now called Humber/St. Barbe/Baie Verte. Smart, energetic and bursting with aggression, Tobin quickly became a charter member of the Liberal Rat Pack and was kicked out of the Commons in 1985 for calling Brian Mulroney a "liar." That same year, he littered the floor of the Commons with a copy of the Tory party's conflict-of-interest guidelines, which he had dramatically ripped into shreds during a debate over controversy surrounding former Conservative minister Sinclair Stevens.

His braggadocio often bordered on arrogance: during one interview with the Halifax Chronicle-Herald, the former radio broadcaster boasted that he could spot any reporter's angle a mile away and praised the reporter for a persistence that reminded him of his own. But his tone seemed to soften as his star rose within party ranks, an ascension signalled in 1988 when he was appointed chairman of the Liberal caucus.

By then, Tobin was a seasoned political performer. He had also picked up invaluable experience as parliamentary secretary to former fisheries and oceans minister Roméo LeBlanc - a position that made him privy to virtually every major policy discussion and decision affecting the Canadian fishery. LeBlanc, who became governor general on Feb. 8, also taught Tobin the value of toughness: the New Brunswick-born Acadian closed Canadian ports to Russian trawlers in 1975 and threatened to do the same to Spanish and Portuguese vessels in retaliation for foreign overfishing.

LeBlanc's successors lacked the opportunity or the will to move so boldly. Throughout the 1980s, any Canadian fisheries minister who hoped to take action against foreign trawlers found that the threat of trade sanctions and other diplomatic concerns always held sway in Ottawa. "It's a question of timing and whether the prime minister is willing or not," John Crosbie, fisheries minister in the Mulroney government, told Maclean's last week after being asked about Tobin's willingness to wage the turbot war. "I am damned sure this is happening despite all the efforts of External Affairs to stop it, and Tobin is able to do it because he has [Prime Minister Jean] Chrétien backing him."

True enough. The Prime Minister has been very active behind the scenes, personally telephoning European leaders to press Canada's case. And from the moment Tobin stepped into the portfolio in November, 1993, his buzzword has been conservation. "I speak for those who have no voice - the fish," he loftily declared in the Commons. All of which would have been so much empty talk had Tobin not been one of Chrétien's most trusted caucus members - and a supporter during Chrétien's 1990 leadership campaign. During the 1993 election, the Liberals announced their intention to get tough with foreign fishing fleets. And Tobin has taken a decidedly in-your-face approach: last summer, he ordered the seizure of two American scallop boats fishing outside Canada's 200-mile limit; he forced American salmon boats fishing off the coast of British Columbia to pay a $1,500 licence fee; and he steered a bill through Parliament that allows Canada to seize fishing vessels operating under flags of convenience.

There was nothing reckless about his decision to take on the EU over turbot overfishing. Tobin warned John Beck, the EU's ambassador to Canada, before Christmas that Ottawa had evidence of overfishing by Spanish vessels along the nose and tail of the Grand Banks. After NAFO set a 1995 turbot quota of 3,400 tons for EU boats - compared with an average of 50,000 tons annually in recent years - he personally visited London and Dublin to help shore up support for Canada's position. As it turned out, few European governments had much real sympathy for the Iberian fleets - although most were happy to have them kept busy outside European waters. "We had a fairly good feel where the Europeans were," said one senior Canadian government official close to the talks. "It wasn't seen as a crap shoot."

The EU, in fact, never knew what hit them. While Tobin played bad cop - portraying the Spaniards as pirates and ordering patrol vessels to seize or cut the nets of any of their vessels fishing the disputed area - Ouellet and officials at Foreign Affairs served as the good cops who kept the diplomatic channels open as negotiations continued towards a settlement. "If we had not done our homework properly, and if we had not sustained through our diplomatic networks the explanation of what we were doing and why we were doing it and so on, it could have taken rather more strong proportions," Ouellet told Maclean's.

Never more so, perhaps, than last week, when fisheries patrol vessels continued to patrol the Grand Banks for Spanish trawlers and Tobin took his message to the world. Inside the UN assembly, he verbally pummelled Emma Bonino, the fiery EU fisheries commissioner, and then told reporters that she should "stop bellowing and face up to the reality" of Spanish overfishing. Bonino, looking harried, replied that Canada had fabricated evidence against the Spanish fishing fleet as a pretext for extending its influence beyond the 200-mile limit.

But Bonino's credibility suffered a serious blow the following day as Tobin and Newfoundland Premier Clyde Wells stood on a barge directly across from UN headquarters, while a 16-storey-high mass of green, grey and orange mesh - the net of the Estai - was suspended from a crane. Surrounded by a forest of microphones and cameras, a fisheries department officer dramatically measured the holes in the net and the liner that the Spanish fishermen allegedly used inside it. Both were far smaller than NAFO's minimum mesh sizes for fishing in the North Atlantic. Displaying undersized turbot that he said came from the hold of the Estai, Tobin ratcheted up his rhetoric to new heights: "We're down now finally to one last, lonely, unattractive little turbot clinging on by its fingertips to the Grand Banks, saying 'someone reach out and save me in this eleventh hour.' "

In Britain, at least, his tortured metaphor clearly struck a chord. Telephone calls, letters and faxes supporting Ottawa's position poured into Canada's High Commission. Fishermen along the coast of Cornwall in the southwest of Britain flew Canadian flags from their ships and at their homes. The Daily Mail, a London tabloid, ran a front-page editorial urging the government to back its former colony. "Oh Canada, Canada!" rhapsodized Bernard Levin in The Sunday Times, "You slept long, but you are awake now, never to sleep again."

The outpouring of British sympathy pushed Major's beleaguered government to abandon its position of neutrality to side - albeit conditionally - with Canada. Britain's threatened veto prevented the EU from agreeing to Spain's demands for economic sanctions against Canada. A senior British official told Maclean's at week's end that public support for Canada made it unthinkable that Major would acquiesce in any retaliatory measures against "the Queen's fellow subjects."

Back in the former colony, Tobin basked in all the accolades. At a minimum, the great turbot war had taken the spotlight off his own department's historic role in mismanaging the Atlantic fishery - not to mention diverting media attention from the grimmer aspects of the Feb. 27 federal budget. More than that, though, his boldness inspired the country - and forced the world to reconsider its view of Canada as a country that would rather turn than fight. In a curious way, however, Tobin could become the prisoner of his own success. After all, to veer away from his bold course, or simply to fail, could mean alienating the same Canadians who now cheer him on. A sobering thought - but one which, last week at least, seemed far from the mind of the newest star in Canada's political firmament.

Maclean's April 10, 1995