CHRIS WOOD October 26 1987


CHRIS WOOD October 26 1987

The verdict was quick, crushing—and intensely personalized. Through recurrent scandals, New Brunswick Premier Richard Hatfield had insisted that only the voters who gave him four successive election victories could remove him from office. Last week they did just that. Barely 15 minutes after the polls closed on Oct. 13 in the province’s 30th general election, it was evident that Hatfield’s 17-year Conservative reign was over. By the time the evening was out, his party had collapsed into an electoral black hole. A rejuvenated Liberal party led by 39-year-old lawyer Frank McKenna took every one of New Brunswick’s 58 ridings—an accomplishment unmatched anywhere in Canada except in 1935, when the Liberals swept Prince Edward Island’s 30-seat legislature. And there was no doubt what led to the sweep. Said one Liberal voter, Robert McGinn of Fredericton: “I just wanted Richard Hatfield out. He brought embarrassment to the province.”

Surge: As much as the result was a verdict on Hatfield, New Brunswick’s voters also reinforced a recent pattern in provincial politics east of the Prairies. When Prime Minister Brian Mulroney won power in September, 1984, his Conservatives supplanted the only Liberal government then in office in the country. But in the past 30 months Liberals have taken power in Ontario, Quebec, Prince Edward Island—and now New Brunswick.

That political shift strengthens the potential regional resistance to key Mulroney programs that require at least a measure of provincial co-operation—the proposed free trade pact with the United States, the projected Meech Lake constitutional amendments and tax reform. The resurgence of the provincial Liberal parties also weakens the regional underpinnings of the federal Tories in advance of a federal election due in less than two years. Indeed, McKenna says that in recent months he has been exchanging political ideas through regular telephone contact with two other new Liberal lawyer premiers of his generation—Ontario’s David Peterson, 44, and Prince Edward Island’s Joseph Ghiz, 42.

‘Jock’: In New Brunswick, the vote was a humiliating rejection of Hatfield, the small-town patrician with a taste for travel and the high life (page 22). In his place, New Brunswickers acclaimed a self-described “jock” who practised slapshots in the barn between chores at his family’s farm before leaving home to study political science and the law (page 20).

By transforming their parliamentary democracy into a single-party legislature, New Brunswickers have generated potential difficulties in their government. The outcome poses unforeseen problems not only for the excluded Conservatives (37 seats in the previous legislature) and New Democrats (one seat) but also for the government, the news media and the province at large. The votes had barely been tallied last week when debate began over how the system could provide the accustomed checks on government policies, legislation and administration. By McKenna’s assessment, disregard of criticism played a major role in Hatfield’s defeat. The premier-elect now faces that same danger. Said Robert Garland, a political scientist at the University of New Brunswick: “He’s going to be under exceptional scrutiny because of the size of the mandate he has.”

The end for Hatfield came with breathtaking finality on the evening of Oct. 13. Keeping to a habit he had followed in each election since coming to power in 1970, Hatfield awaited the returns with his brother, Frederick, and his family in their white clapboard house in Hartland, in the premier’s Carleton Centre riding beside the St. John River. Shortly after 9 p.m., having lost his seat, Hatfield conceded defeat in a telephone call to McKenna’s home in Chatham, in northern New Brunswick.

Strain: Minutes later, Hatfield met reporters gathered outside in the clear, frosty night. “I just simply want to say how much I have loved the last 17 years of serving the people of New Brunswick,” he said, his voice shaking with apparent strain and exhaustion. “I am very sorry. And I accept full responsibility for the defeat,” he added before slipping down an alley and through a back door into his brother’s house. His resignation as Conservative leader, delivered to party officials the next day, was dated at 8 p.m. on Oct. 13—the hour the polls closed. He will resign as premier—and McKenna will be sworn in to replace him—on Oct. 27.

Escape: Hatfield’s defeat removed from office one of Canada’s most durable political leaders—and one who was by turns intensely involved in national and regional matters or distracted by a penchant for playboy living. During his often controversial tenure, Hatfield became an important figure on the national stage. He continued policies begun under the previous Liberal government of Premier Louis Robichaud that officially acknowledged the bilingual nature of his province, and he played a key role in helping patriate the Constitution in 1982.

For Frank McKenna himself, the extraordinary victory was fraught with potential troubles. Without any opposition in the legislature, he must devise new escape valves for criticism and dissent —or face inevitable charges that he is running an arrogant one-party government. Even so, McKenna declared: “I refuse to feel guilty about our victory. We did our job and the people of New Brunswick passed their judgment.”

It was a merciless judgment indeed for the Conservatives—and for Hatfield. While the premier’s leadership was not the only issue in the election, on the stump McKenna repeatedly criticized Hatfield for unfulfilled promises and erratic attention to provincial affairs. And as the Liberal leader drove home his commitment to “thrift, integrity and decency,” few voters could miss the implicit attack on Hatfield’s lifestyle. Declared McKenna at one stop in the province’s largely francophone Northeast: “You can only trample on people for so long. There comes a time when people say, ‘We’ve had enough. We’re not going to take it anymore.’ ”

Power: Still, not even the most ardent Liberal supporters predicted the scale of the sweep. The landslide unseated no fewer than 37 Tory MLAs as well as the lone New Democrat. The Liberals took 62 per cent of the popular vote, compared with 28 per cent for the Tories and 10 per cent for the NDP. As McKenna began to prepare for the formal transfer of power next week, the unanticipated challenge of governing without an official opposition threatened to overshadow his political agenda.

Painful: Still, he said that he would call a fall session of the legislature if he could draw up a legislative package in time. Among his priorities: reducing New Brunswick’s unemployment rate of 12.9 per cent, the country’s third-highest after Newfoundland and Prince Edward Island, and challenging parts of the Meech Lake accord on the Constitution. The leaderless Conservatives, meanwhile, began the painful process of assessing blame for the electoral disaster and coming to terms with an election that left them, for the first time in their history, with neither seats nor official status in the provincial assembly.

Even Tories agreed that the Liberals’ extraordinary sweep left no doubt about New Brunswickers’ desire for change. And in the personal style of their premier, at least, they got it. McKenna exploited his background adroitly in his successful bid for power, turning his youth, energy and work ethic into recurrent campaign themes. “As long as there is one person in New Brunswick who does not have a job,” McKenna told a packed rally in Moncton late in his drive for office, “we will not take a break, we will not take a vacation, we will not walk away from our responsibility.”

The message was reflected in his campaign’s quick start—a red van emblazened with McKenna’s name and party logo rolled out of a Fredericton garage hours after Hatfield’s election call-in tune with the Liberal leader’s relentless pace, which took him to as many as eight communities a day.

Dogged: By contrast, the Conservatives’ slow-starting campaign appeared both ill-conceived and poorly managed. Despite their leader’s evident unpopularity, the Tories made his record the focus of their appeal for a fifth term. But Hatfield seemed unable to keep to the timetables his organizers drew up only one day in advance, and on occasion he failed to appear for scheduled campaign events. He was unable to match McKenna’s energy—and his message seldom rose above a dogged defence of his past.

Hatfield’s defensiveness served only to draw additional attention to a personal and public record that many voters had already rejected. According to pollster Linda Dyer, president of Baseline Market Research Ltd. of Fredericton, voters’ attitudes had hardened against Hatfield two years ago and changed little during the run-up to the election. Said Dyer: “New Brunswickers have a remarkable patience until something jolts them. But when somebody jolts them, they really turn.”

Cocaine: The events that turned New Brunswick against Richard Hatfield began with the discovery of marijuana in the premier’s luggage during a visit by the Queen to the province in September, 1984. Hatfield successfully fought a charge of possession of the drug—at a cost of $123,628 in legal bills paid by his party. But then two former university students told reporters that Hatfield had invited them and two other students to his Fredericton home in 1981 for an all-night party. The young men said that the premier had shared cocaine with them before flying them to Montreal aboard a government plane. Hatfield denied the allegation of drug use, but not the rest of the account.

Those charges sparked other disclosures about the premier’s lifestyle. He was the subject of frequent gossip and innuendo about his sexual preferences. Items in Conservative party financial statements reviewed in April, 1986, included a $218.54 bill from Hatfield for purchases at Montreal’s Androgyny Books. Hatfield ignored questions on the subject. But speculation about his personal life was only one of the factors that led to the resounding rejection of Hatfield.

His lavish expense accounts—in 1982 the premier billed the province for travel expenses of $69,000—and his unwillingness to discipline ministers for similar excesses angered many New Brunswickers. So did his decision to delay the election until the last legally permissible moment—it came, in fact, one day after the fifth anniversary of New Brunswick’s previous election —and the day after Thanksgiving. Allison DeLong, the 46-year-old Hartland high-school vice-principal who bested Hatfield in his own riding, said on the night of the Liberal sweep: “His lifestyle had something to do with it. And this last year he held on to power, he looked like he was grasping for the last bit of taxpayers’ money.” Still, some Conservative loyalists were quick to jump to Hatfield’s defence. Said one Hartland woman who backed him to the end: “I’m not ashamed who I voted for.”

The depth of public feeling against the premier and the resulting electoral shutout stunned even those who expected a Liberal landslide. Defeated Tory Health and Community Services Minister Nancy Clark Teed was especially bitter. She complained that voters in her Saint John riding “didn’t tell me the truth” when she talked to them while campaigning, adding, “This is far worse than I thought the worst could be.” In a nearby suburban riding, Conservative MLA Beverley Harrison had hoped that his vocal opposition to Hatfield’s leadership would protect him against a Liberal sweep. After losing his seat, the dissident Harrison reflected, “We’ve been proven right at our own expense.” Indeed, even pollster Dyer, whose opinion sampling had forecast the clean sweep, privately expected the Tories to hold on to as many as seven seats. Said Dyer: “I just couldn’t believe they would go 58 seats.”

Doubts: For his part, McKenna did his best to appear unruffled by the unparalleled mandate and the political problems it may cause. Although legislative procedure does not formally require an official opposition, its presence is a traditional curb on strong majority governments. Now McKenna is under pressure to devise new ways of providing checks and balances on his own government. One option would be appointing Liberal MLAS to form an unofficial opposition in the legislature. Historians say that method worked effectively for Premier Walter Lea of Prince Edward Island after he won his 1935 shutout victory. Political scientist Robert Garland said that an informal group of backbench Liberals at the time spoke out on various issues, effectively providing a check on the government. Said Garland: “They did act as a sort of rump opposition.”

Another option would be to persuade one or more Liberal backbenchers to resign, hold byelections and let opposition candidates win. But McKenna has expressed doubts about that idea, saying it would be a betrayal of voters who elected a Liberal as their representative. Instead, he said that he might be prepared to allow some of his own backbenchers more freedom to criticize government initiatives—in addition to scrutiny by the news media and Conservatives outside the legislature. Said McKenna: “There will be a tendency for backbenchers to fight vigorously for regional interests.”

Watchdog: Indeed, the clerk of the New Brunswick legislature, David Peterson, said that backbenchers are likely to make use of the rules of the House to keep an eye on the government, putting ministers on the spot during Question Period and requesting the government to table documents. In Ottawa, constitutional expert and former Liberal senator Eugene Forsey agreed that backbenchers will fill an important role. Meanwhile, Forsey said in an interview, “the other parties outside the house can lobby, hold demonstrations and raise the dust generally.”

Many commentators looked to the media to play a key role. Instead of simply reporting what opposition parties say about the government, they said, newspapers, radio and television stations will be expected to act as a government watchdog. Thomas Crowther, publisher of the Fredericton Gleaner, said that he is prepared to increase his reporting staff at the legislature, if necessary, in order to improve his paper’s scrutiny of government business.

But that enhanced role will not come naturally to the New Brunswick media. They have not been known for aggressive political reporting—and some critics voiced concern that all four English-language daily newspapers and one of the province’s three television stations are owned by the family of industrialist K. C. Irving. Said political scientist Garland: “The media in this province tend to be a defender of the status quo, if anything, especially when they’re controlled as they are by one individual.”

For his part, McKenna promised that he would do his best to ensure that his government did not exceed its powers. “If we’re arrogant and extravagant and unreasonable, then New Brunswick has a right to be concerned,” he said. “I do not intend to see those things happen.”

As for the Conservatives, they now face a task of reorganization, hampered by their loss of government and even the privileges of official opposition. As many as 65 political aides on the government payroll will lose their jobs when the Liberals take charge next week. As well, the party’s executive director will lose the office suite provided for him by the government next door to the legislature, and the party will forfeit a $371,000 subsidy paid to the official opposition to employ research and secretarial staff. In an interview with Maclean's, McKenna said that he will consider giving the Tories some kind of subsidy to carry out their opposition role. “We are going to be looking at a whole range of options as to how we can be sure that democracy is both alive and well in New Brunswick,” he said.

Tory officials were expected to begin the task of reconstruction this week with a meeting to consider the vacant leadership. A leading contender is W. J. (Bud) Bird, a Fredericton businessman who served in Hatfield’s cabinet between 1978 and 1982. Asked last week about his party’s prospects, Bird was stoic. “The party is very resilient,” he said. “It will get its views out through the media.”

Grapple: For his part, Hatfield appeared to accept the massive public rejection with disarming grace. In an impromptu interview with Donald Hoyt, a columnist for the Saint John Telegraph-Journal who knocked on his door the day after the election, Hatfield said that he had not seen defeat coming until the campaign’s final hours, but said, “I really feel for the first time I’m a free person.” Hatfield will receive an annual pension of more than $57,700—the premier’s salary is just over $74,000 plus an expense allowance of $2,500 a year. He said that he planned to write his memoirs, but dismissed speculation that the federal government might offer him an attractive post.

The new Liberal government, meanwhile, will begin next week to grapple with the challenges posed by McKenna’s huge win. “I wish to be measured by how well we do at putting people to work,” McKenna said during the campaign. Last week he told Maclean's that he intends to begin with an infusion of spending on public works. The man who will become the country’s youngest premier has also made it clear that he will seek changes in the Meech Lake accord to protect the rights of women and linguistic minorities—notably the 260,000 Frenchspeaking Acadians in his own province.

Plane: But McKenna’s first action will probably be a gesture calculated to counter the Hatfield legacy. He said that he intends to sell the twinengined King Air plane maintained at government expense largely for the outgoing premier’s private use. It was the aircraft that Hatfield used in his trip with four young men to Montreal in 1981. “The plane was a symbol of arrogance and extravagance,” McKenna said before the election. “I’m going to get rid of it.” Clearly, the voters of New Brunswick shared the sentiment.