In the past 17 years New Brunswick Premier Richard Hatfield has defeated four different Liberal leaders in four successive elections. But according to opinion polls, Hatfield’s winning streak may be coming to an abrupt end. As the campaign for New Brunswick’s Oct. 13 election entered the home stretch last week, the latest survey put Liberal challenger Frank McKenna far in the lead. Conducted in late September, it gave the Liberals a commanding 35percentage-point lead over the Tories—indicating that McKenna’s party is headed for a landslide victory.
In his campaign for office, McKenna has promised to seek changes to the Meech Lake constitutional accord negotiated between Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and the 10 premiers, including Hatfield. He has also pledged to introduce pay equity legislation for provincial civil servants. But the main issue in the 45-day campaign has been leadership. Without referring directly to Hatfield’s past personal problems—including a celebrated trial and acquittal on a marijuana possession charge three years
ago—McKenna has repeatedly implied that the premier has become an embarrassment to New Brunswick. Said the 39-year-old lawyer: “Political leadership must have as its ultimate goal making people feel good about themselves.”
McKenna’s pitch seems to be working.
Last week’s poll, conducted by Torontobased Canada Facts, gave the Liberals 62per-cent support among decided voters, compared with 27 per cent for the Tories and 11 per cent for the New Democratic Party. The same survey said that 46 per cent of voters found McKenna the most likable party leader, while 11 per cent favored Hatfield and seven per cent supported the NDP’s Scottish-born leader, George Little.
McKenna’s big lead has galvanized Liberal supporters. Across the prov-
ince, Liberals proudly display placards identifying themselves to voters as “your McKenna candidate.” By contrast, some Tory candidates sought to distance themselves from Hatfield. Eric Kipping, one of three Tory MLAs who failed in an attempt to remove Hatfield from the leadership in 1985, said that as he goes from door to door in his riding of Saint John North, people often remark, “There’s nothing wrong with you, Eric, but there’s a lot wrong with Hatfield.”
Despite the ominous polls, Hatfield, 56, has _ given no sign that he H thinks he might lose. In i the only televised deI bate of the campaign, he appeared relaxed and confident. Moreover, his party’s campaign platform does little to address criticism of his record. Entitled “The Record, The Challenge, The Plan,” it commits the Tories to maintaining a steady course
of sound management and fiscal responsibility. Hatfield has unveiled a new energy policy, including plans for a 300megawatt nuclear power plant at Point Lepreau in southern New Brunswick. But federal Energy Minister Marcel Masse undercut Hatfield by saying that there was no guarantee that the federal government would provide substantial funding for the $1.5-billion project. Despite such setbacks, Hatfield insisted that his record will lift his party to victory. “There’s no doubt we’re coming from behind,” he said. “But we are gaining support throughout the province.”
The energetic McKenna appeared equally confident. A farmer’s son, he first caught the public eye in 1977 when he successfully defended former light heavyweight Canadian boxing champion Yvon Durelle of Baie Ste-Anne, N.B., on a murder charge. McKenna entered the New Brunswick legislature in the 1982 election and won the Liberal leadership in 1985.
The winner of a constitutional law prize while studying at
the University of New Brunswick, McKenna has voiced strong views on the Meech Lake accord which, he says, will weaken the federal government. Among other things, he says that he wants changes to ensure that the Charter of Rights and Freedoms takes precedence over a provision of the accord that designates Quebec as a “distinct society.” One McKenna campaign strategist said that if the Liberal leader is elected he will attempt to persuade the other premiers that changes are needed. “We’re going to push hard on this,” said the official. “We want to make sure our position is seriously considered.” McKenna’s strong stand on Meech Lake has received much attention in New Brunswick. But local issues such as the construction of hospitals, roads and bridges have not taken their traditionally prominent role. Instead, the leadership issue has dominated. And it is that issue that could prove to be Hatfield’s downfall.
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