CANADA

Passionate populist

New Brunswick Liberals pick a new premier

May 11 1998
CANADA

Passionate populist

New Brunswick Liberals pick a new premier

May 11 1998

Passionate populist

New Brunswick Liberals pick a new premier

Long before New Brunswick Liberal cabinet minister Camille Thériault formally announced his bid for his party’s—and the province’s—top job on Jan. 26, his leadership ambitions were a badly kept secret. During Frank McKenna’s final years in office, the politically wily Thériault quietly lobbied his fellow Liberals in an attempt to position himself as the heir apparent. It was an effort that helped him secure an early—and enduring—lead among the 4,000 delegates who attended last weekend’s leadership convention in Saint John. But it also served to rankle many Liberals, who felt that Thériault was just a little too eager to replace the man who had led the party to three lopsided majority governments since 1987. Following his victory over fellow cabinet ministers Bernard Richard and Greg Byrne, Thériault, who will become New Brunswick’s 29th premier, made a point of reaching out to his two opponents, asking them to “relentlessly voice your opinions, to tell me my weaknesses, perceived or real, so that I may be a better leader.” Soothing some raw nerves within his own party is just one of the challenges facing Thériault as he lays the groundwork for a provincial election that must be held by the year 2000. Of the three leadership candidates, Thériault, 43, was the one most closely associated with the McKenna era. First elected in 1987, he served in several cabinet portfolios, including the critical economic development ministry. As a result, he is linked in the public mind with the major initiatives of the past decade, including the slashing of government services in a successful bid to eliminate a $370-million deficit. Such associations have their benefits: as the party’s emotional farewell to McKenna on Friday night reinforced, the former premier remains a respected figure who is widely credited with changing his province’s image from an economic backwater. But there is also growing public fatigue with government cutbacks—reflected in the fact that support for the Liberals among decided voters has dropped by a stunning 30 percentage points in the last 18 months.

Thériault faces some immediate political headaches. Among them is the fallout from an April 22 ruling by the New Brunswick Court of Appeal that native loggers have no right to harvest or sell timber from Crown lands. The ruling overturned a lower court decision last October that said 18th-century treaties gave native people first right to

Crown lands. While it is likely that the case will be referred to the Supreme Court of Canada, a tense—and potentially violent— standoff persists. Many native loggers, who have prospered since the October ruling, are vowing to keep cutting—even if it means risking jail time. The province, meanwhile, faces increasing pressure from the forestry industry and non-native loggers to resolve the impasse.

During the leadership race, all three

candidates were conspicuously silent on the issue. On Saturday, though, Thériault held out an olive branch, telling the delegates that “the government I lead will work together with the native people. We will do this in a spirit of mutual respect and dignity.”

As Thériault's often fiery convention speeches again demonstrated, the fluently bilingual Acadian is a passionate campaigner with a populist touch, attributes that may be traced back to his upbringing as part of a political family in an impoverished area of rural New Brunswick. His father, Norbert, ran a fish business and general store in the small town of Baie-Sainte-Anne; he was also a cabinet minister in Louis Robichaud’s reform-minded Liberal government of the 1960s and went on to serve in the Senate. Thériault, who used to work after school at

his father’s store, caught a firsthand glimpse of how local fishermen struggled to support their families. “You realize that there are always people who need assistance,” he told Maclean’s. “It’s where I learned the importance of having a good social safety net.”

In fact, Thériault describes himself as a “left-of-centre Liberal,” and says he was not always comfortable with the budget-cutting of the McKenna era. But he makes no apologies for the active role he played during those years. “Frank was a visionary,” he says. “He took the party to the right because we had to do that, and every province in Canada followed us. Now, we are in a position to reinvest in our most important resource—our people.”

Thériault’s success in delivering that message will determine whether he remains premier after the next provincial election. It is far from a lost cause: despite the Liberals’ recent free fall in the public opinion polls,

the latest survey from Halifax-based Corporate Research Associates, released in March, gave the party 43 per cent support among decided voters, compared with 30 per cent for the Conservatives and 20 per cent for the NDP. The Liberals also hold a commanding 47 seats in the legislature, as compared with seven for the Tories and one for the NDP. Before the party faithful in Saint John, Thériault exuded unbounded confidence in the Liberals’ fortunes. Promising to act quickly on jobs, health care and education, he told the opposition parties, “Watch us—and then watch out.” All New Brunswickers, in fact, will be watching closely to see if the new premier’s actions live up to his rhetoric.

BRIAN BERGMAN in Saint John