When Premier Richard Hatfield of New Brunswick and his 36-member Progressive Conservative caucus withdrew to a remote lakeside logging camp for three days of soul-searching last week, they confronted the party’s political fortunes at the lowest ebb in nearly 15 years of power. Hatfield, 54, arrived at the cluster of trailers at Long Lake, 35 km northeast of Plaster Rock, still wearing a wrist cast from an accident early in June and scarred by nearly a year of personal and political setbacks which included being charged with and then acquitted of marijuana possession.
Hatfield’s Tories have won four election victories since 1970. But the past year has been a difficult one for the party. Bitter wrangling marred hearings into relations between the province’s 500,000-strong English-speaking majority and its 260,000-member French-speaking community last fall, and an attempt to reshape the sprawling provincial bureaucracy failed to accomplish its goals. A thin legislative agenda this spring was marked by an unpopular budget which increased the provincial sales tax to 11 from 10 per cent.
For Hatfield, the past 10 months have been a personal ordeal. The premier was charged, last October with possession of marijuana after the drug was found in his suitcase in September. Following his acquittal in January, newspapers published allegations by two former students that Hatfield supplied them with marijuana and cocaine in 1981. Hatfield’s problems have continued: in early
June he fell from a golf cart while attending a meeting of the premiers of the Maritime provinces in Prince Edward Island, breaking his wrist and several ribs.
Many New Brunswick Tories say the party’s woes are bound up with Hatfield’s. Some party members blamed him for the loss of two byelections during the past 10 months, and increasingly there have been calls within the party for a leadership review. For his part, Hatfield admitted that his leadership would be talked about at the caucus gathering, but he insisted that it would not be “the main issue.”
After the meeting, Hatfield made it clear he would continue to resist suggestions that he resign soon. Asked by reporters whether he would lead his party into the next election, Hatfield replied, “I will.” An election need not be held until October, 1987, but some observers, noting the unusual amount of repair work being done on provincial highways this summer, think that Hatfield may send voters to the polls as early as this October. Still, if Hatfield intends to hold on to his job until, or after, the nexT election, he must act soon to restore Conservative fortunes. After a decade and a half in power, many in Hatfield’s own party say that signs of a new political vigor on the part of the premier must come no later than Nov. 8, when the Conservatives gather in Saint John for the party’s annual general meeting.
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