For the men who would be premier, it has become a familiar challenge. At a recent public forum in Bathurst, N.B., one of several held in advance of the May 2 provincial Liberal leadership convention, the three candidates—Camille Thériault, Bernard Richard and Greg Byrne—fielded the first question from an elderly woman who described herself as a lifelong Liberal. Despairing that the party had drifted too far to the right under former premier Frank McKenna, the woman bluntly asked the leadership aspirants: “How will you bring us back to where we belong as a Liberal party and as a Liberal government?”
How well the candidates ultimately answer that question may determine who emerges victorious at the convention in Saint John. But as their responses in Bathurst indicated, the three contenders—all of them former McKenna cabinet ministers—are struggling to define how a government led by one of them would differ from the way McKenna single-mindedly ran New Brunswick for 10 years until his resignation last October. They spoke of the need to “reinvest” in the province’s health-care and education systems after a decade of painful spending cuts. They also talked of their desire to “renew” the party from within by ushering in a new era of consultation and communication—a not-so-subtle knock against McKenna’s tendency to centralize power and decision-making in the premier’s office. But in the end, they declined to dissociate themselves from the man they had all served so loyally. As Byrne put it in his opening remarks: “In my view, Frank McKenna gave us the best provincial government in the country.”
It is a difficult balancing act—and one made doubly so because the Liberals, who enjoyed such commanding electoral support under McKenna, have slipped badly in recent public opinion polls. The decline began even before McKenna resigned: according to polls by Halifax-based Corporate Research Associates, the Liberals slid from
a high of 73 per cent support among decided voters in November, 1996, to 52 per cent in a poll taken just a month ■ before McKenna’s departure. Since then, it has only gotten H worse; a poll released in early March gave the Liberals 43 per cent support, compared with 30 per cent for the ConpF servatives and 20 per cent for the NDP.
The numbers pose no immediate threat to whoever takes over from interim Premier Ray Frenette on May 2. At the present levels of support, the Liberals would most likely win a fourth majority mandate. (They currently hold 47 seats, compared with seven for the Tories and one for the NDP) But the clear downward trend has many party members rattled. Most blame their falling fortunes on public fatigue with the bottom-line politics practised by McKenna, who came into office in 1987 saddled with a $370-million budget deficit. In short order, 3,700 civil servants lost their jobs, school boards and municipalities were amalgamated, and the annual growth in health-care spending
dropped from 10 per cent in 1987 to under one per cent in 1997. The result: by fiscal year 1994-1995, New Brunswick delivered its first balanced budget in 15 years. It has been running in the black ever since.
While McKenna won kudos for restoring fiscal prudence, his doggedly pro-business style of government eventually created headaches. A number of so-called public-private partnerships initiated during his final years in office were scrapped, including a plan to have an American company, Wackenhut Corrections, administer prison programs in the province. A contract signed in January to have a private consortium build the province’s first toll highway has
emerged as the hottest issue of the leadership contest—and one that threatens to haunt the Liberals all the way to the next election, which must be called by the year 2000. It is no accident, then, that the three leadership contenders are all eager to portray themselves as left-of-centre Liberals who want to preside over a kinder, gentler New Brunswick. They are keenly aware that the NDP has made unprecedented gains in the Maritimes, both in last June’s federal election and in the March 24 Nova Scotia provincial vote. “They recognize that the right is on the decline and there’s a swing back to the left,” observes University of New Brunswick political scientist Don Desserud. “As a result, they are all claiming that they were dragged kicking and screaming into the McKenna agenda.”
Ironically, it is the acknowledged front-runner, Thériault, who is the most closely associated with the McKenna era. First elected in 1987, the year McKenna became premier, the 43-year-old Thériault has held several cabinet portfolios, including the critical economic development ministry. In part, he stakes his leftist credentials on his family pedigree: his father, Norbert, served as a cabinet minister in the reform-minded Liberal government led by Louis Robichaud in the 1960s. Thériault told Maclean’s that being part of the rightleaning McKenna government was “always a dilemma for someone who was young and considered more to the left.” But he adds that, because of the success in taming the deficit, he looks forward to leading a government with the financial clout to mend the holes in the province’s social safety net.
The other two contenders are presenting themselves as fresher faces who are in a better position than Thériault to convince New Brunswickers that the Liberal party can shift direction. Richard, 47, was first elected in 1991 and appointed to cabinet in 1995. Byrne, 38, first ran in 1995 and served in cabinet for a scant six months. Richard is pledging to run a government of “new ideas”—among other things, he vows that, within 200 days of being elected premier, he will convene a “millennium conference” so that New Brunswickers can discuss their social priorities for the 21st century. In a similar vein, Byrne argues that “it is important to choose a leader who can represent change to the public.” He adds that, as “the new kid on the block,” he is best equipped to do that.
A recent poll of 500 New Brunswick Liberals by Ottawa-based SES Canada Research Inc. indicated the three candidates enjoy roughly even levels of support among the party faithful, but are perceived to have different leadership strengths. Byrne was seen as the most trustworthy, Richard as the most innovative and Thériault as the most populist. But on policy matters, the poll suggests even Liberals are finding it difficult to distinguish among the candidates. Not surprisingly, that is also how the Liberals’ political opponents see matters. “Whoever wins,” says New Brunswick Conservative Leader Bernard Lord, “it’s going to be very difficult for them to say they will do things differently after calling the shots all these years.” NDP Leader Elizabeth Weir is even more blunt. “None of them,” she says, “can escape the legacy of having been McKenna’s handmaidens.” Partisan views, to be sure, but for the three would-be premiers, they signal that, even when this race is over, a larger battle beckons. □
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