In 1977 he was Newfoundland representative on a Canadian Bar Association committee on the Constitution and in 1981 he argued the government's case in the Newfoundland Supreme Court against the federal government's claim that it could unilaterally patriate the constitution. (The court ruled that it could not.) In 1987 the provincial Liberal Party chose him leader and in 1989 he became premier, ending 17 years of Conservative rule.
Within months Wells gained national attention with his criticism of the MEECH LAKE ACCORD (see MEECH LAKE ACCORD: DOCUMENT), which had been ratified by the Newfoundland Assembly in 1988. He believed that the Accord would erode Newfoundland's status in the federal Parliament and strongly rejected the "distinct society" status that the Accord conferred on Québec. In April 1990 he rescinded Newfoundland's ratification and he campaigned effectively against the agreement, gaining wide media attention. During the dramatic First Ministers' conference in June 1990, he reluctantly agreed to accept the Accord, which was agreed to by all the other ministers, on condition that it be represented to the people of Newfoundland, either in a plebiscite or in the Assembly.
In the end Wells did not bring the Accord to a vote on the grounds that procedural delays in the Manitoba legislature made meeting the deadline impossible. Wells's refusal to compromise was widely blamed for the Accord's failure and for the ensuing wrath in Québec, a view that Wells vehemently denies.
In the next round of constitutional discussions, Wells tempered his objection to the question of special status for Québec. He became an adamant defender of the "Triple E" Senate championed by Don Getty and other Western premiers, another serious obstacle to a new constitutional accord. His view of provincial equality was diametrically opposed to Québec's insistence on a "distinct society" clause. Wells finally agreed to a modified Senate Reform proposal in the CHARLOTTETOWN ACCORD (see CHARLOTTETOWN ACCORD: DOCUMENT), and Newfoundland was one of a few provinces that supported the Accord in the 1992 Referendum.
In the aftermath of the constitutional battles, Wells turned his attention to the impoverished Newfoundland economy. He tabled a harsh budget early in 1993 and went to the polls preaching fiscal responsibility. His Liberal government was returned with a slightly improved majority. Never able to produce a surplus, Wells was effective in controlling spending and lessening the devastating effect of the loss of the fishery to the economy. He privatized the provincial Power Corporation and amalgamated 2 costly school systems into one, ending some 400 years of church control of the school system.
Wells announced his plans to leave politics in December 1995 and left office on 26 January 1996 to return to the practice of law.
Links to Other Sites
Constitutional Discord: Meech Lake
A great collection of old news videos featuring former Canadian political leaders debating the pros and cons of the Meech Lake accord. A CBC Archives website.