Richard Hatfield on the line

KATHRYN HARLEY April 14 1986

Richard Hatfield on the line

KATHRYN HARLEY April 14 1986

Richard Hatfield on the line

With traditional pomp and ceremony ,

New Brunswick’s Lt.Gov. George F.G. Stanley—the historian who designed Canada’s flag—was scheduled to open the new session of the province’s legislature this week. But as Stanley delivers the Conservative government’s speech from the throne, the focus will once again be on the figure who stands at the centre of the province’s political life—the soberly suited but personally flamboyant bachelor,

Richard Bennett Hatfield. As he begins his 16th session as New Brunswick’s premier— and celebrates his 55th birthday on April 9— many veteran observers predict it will be the last session before a

general election that -

will decide Hatfield’s and the province’s political future.

For 19 months the combative Hatfield has been involved in a series of controversies that would have toppled many lesser politicians—beginning with the Queen’s September, 1984, visit to Fredericton, when the RCMP discovered marijuana in Hatfield’s suitcase. Last week, as the Conservatives put the finishing touches on the throne speech and the opposition Liberals plotted legislative strategy, New Brunswick’s political circuits were buzzing about Hatfield’s expense accounts, open to public scrutiny under the province’s Political Process Financing Act. In 1984-85 Hatfield had billed the New Brunswick Progressive Conservative party for personal expenses ranging from the $123,628.99 paid to the Saint John law firm of Gilbert, McGloan, Gillis for successfully defending him on the marijuana charge, down to a $41.25 invoice for a pewter baby gift. Also included were such esoteric items as two payments to Androgyny Books, a New York company not currently listed in any New York City phone books, totalling $218.54.

The province’s supervisor of political financing, Sam Field, maintained last week that there was nothing wrong with any of the billing. The sole exception: an account for $603.71 that had been doublebilled to the party and the province. And that, explained Fred Blair, the party’s provincial executive director, was the result of a “clerical error.’’ Hatfield promptly repaid the party. In a memo to party members, Blair said that Field had cleared in advance the payment to Hatfield’s lawyers, adding that the premier had personally paid another member of his legal defence team.

But the explanation did not satisfy New Democratic leader George Little. “The suggestion that it is acceptable to pay Premier Hatfield’s private legal bills or personal expenses out of public funds is in my view absolutely wrong,” declared Little. There was public criticism as well from Tory party dissi-

dents who spearheaded an unsuccessful dumpHatfield movement last fall, and rank-and-file Conservatives privately were questioning whether party funds had been properly used. Said one local riding executive member: “It stinks. But after all the other stuff I’m not surprised.” Prominent Tories told Maclean's that the expense account flap has embarassed the party and that dissatisfaction with Hatfield explained a marked decline in party donations. Between January 1 and June 30, 1985, when the drug trial was at its height, the Tories received only $14,050 in donations from individuals and corporations, compared to $36,200 in the previous six months. During the same period contributions to the Liberal party treasury totalled

$88,590. The current low

level of donations means that close to 90 per cent of the provincial Conservative party’s funds come from the public purse through a formula based on the number of votes received in the last general election.

In contrast to the Tories’ troubled 18 months, the Liberals have been riding a political crest. Liberal leader Frank McKenna, 38, who won the leadership post last May, lately has been cautioning his caucus about overconfidence. Working 18-hour z days and making regu§ lar monthly circuits of ^ the province, lawyer Mc| Kenna has evoked comparisons from at least one high-ranking Tory cabinet minister to the younger and more energetic Richard Hatfield of 16 years ago. McKenna himself concedes that there was much to admire in Hatfield during his term as leader of the opposition (196970) and in the early years of his premiership.

Although his speeches are peppered

with references to “moral leadership” and stress the importance of the family—both oblique jabs at Hatfield— McKenna has carefully avoided direct personal attacks against the premier. That tactic failed several of his Liberal predecessors. Still, in his first full legislative session as leader of the opposition, McKenna plans to mount a frontal attack on the premier’s official languages policy.

If Hatfield sticks with his tried-andtrue formula, the spring legislative session will be the last before a general election: he has always called elections for the fourth autumn of his mandate. As a result, observers were expecting the speech from the throne and the subsequent budget to contain more substance—and more political plums—than were visible during 1985’s lacklustre session. Even the government’s detailed three-year plan for streamlining the provincial bureaucracy did little to generate excitement. Said Linda Dyer, a Fredericton-based political pollster: “People don’t even know what happened. It was not earthshattering.”

But Hatfield does not have to call a fall vote. He holds a comfortable majority of 37 seats to the Liberals’ 20 and the New Democratic Party’s one. And in the wake of an Edmundston byelection on February 10, in which the Liberal candidate defeated his Tory opponent by 1,801 votes, some party strategists suggest the premier would do better to let as much time as possible elapse before calling a general election, perhaps delaying until October, 1987, the ultimate limit of his mandate. But many Tories privately admit that the timing of the election may no longer matter: given the drift of public opinion, they frankly acknowledge that a Liberal victory is probably a foregone conclusion. Their principal concern: to minimize losses.

In fact, some Conservatives suggest that the only gift Hatfield could give his party is his resignation. The people most frequently mentioned to replace him: Bud Bird, 54, a popular former cabinet minister who resigned his seat in 1982 to attend to business interests, thus avoiding being tainted with the government’s problems over the past couple of years; Yvon Poitras, 37, the competent chairman of the government’s board of management and a rising power among francophone Tories; and Moncton MP Dennis Cochrane, 35, who says bluntly, “I would consider it seriously, but right now there’s no vacancy.” Given the ferment within New Brunswick’s Conservative party, there may be a change in the signs.

KATHRYN HARLEY in Fredericton