Hatfield’s toughest fight

KATHRYN HARLEY September 14 1987

Hatfield’s toughest fight

KATHRYN HARLEY September 14 1987

Hatfield’s toughest fight

Richard Hatfield is famous across the country for personal eccentricities. But as the New Brunswick premier began his campaign for a fifth term last week, he was relaxed enough to joke about his reputation. Explaining his choice of Tuesday, Oct. 13 as the day for a provincial election, Hatfield told supporters in the northeastern community of Miramichi Bay: “In politics, you can’t take any chances. I consulted numerologists. And astrologists. I checked my biorhythms. I called the lobster fishermen and the duck hunters.” Asked if his choice had anything to do with the timing of his last victory—the Tuesday after Thanksgiving—the reputedly superstitious Conservative premier replied, “It crossed my mind that it’s a lucky day.”

Hatfield will need more than luck to win. After 17 years as premier, he faces the toughest battle of his career. His party took 39 of 58 provincial seats in a 1982 electoral sweep, but his fortunes have steadily declined. His government has lost three of the four byelections held since, leaving standings in the legislature before dissolution at 37 for the Tories, 20 for the Liberals and one for the New Democratic Party. Past controversies concerning the 56-year-old Hatfield’s flamboyant personal life continue to haunt him. And he faces a young and determined opponent in Frank McKenna, a 39-year-old lawyer who became leader of the Liberal party two years ago. In order for Hatfield to win, said

University of New Brunswick historian Bernie Vigod, “McKenna will have to run such a bad campaign that it puts doubt in people’s minds about his ability to govern.”

Recent opinion polls confirm that the Tories are in trouble. A survey conducted during the summer by the independent Halifax research company Omnifax showed the Liberals 26 percentage points ahead, a figure that parallels the party’s own research, according to Liberal campaign co-chairman John Bryden. Hatfield denies that his party’s weakness led him to delay the election, but critics note that he waited until his five-year mandate had almost expired before calling for the vote.

Despite Hatfield’s difficulties, his opponents are unwilling to count him out. They note that he has vanquished four consecutive Liberal leaders, becoming Canada’s longest-serving premier now in power. And in the past year Hatfield has managed a resurrection of sorts. His career hit an all-time low in 1984 and 1985 when, in quick sequence, he faced a charge of possession of marijuana (he was acquitted) followed by allegations that he had offered university students drugs at a party in his house and that he had used provincial and party funds for extravagant overseas trips. All that led to an abortive attempt by party critics to oust him from the leadership at a convention in November, 1985. Since then Hatfield has managed to bring

his restive caucus into line. And by ignoring the issue of his personal problems and keeping a low profile, he has attempted to put his dark days behind him.

Always a vigorous campaigner, Hatfield now appears to be in buoyant spirits. “I am very, very confident,” he told 200 people gathered under drizzly skies for a corn boil in the southern riding of Kings Centre, a Tory stronghold. He added, “We have earned the confidence of the people.” For their part, his supporters claim that they are not troubled by the Liberal lead in the polls. Said Conservative party executive director Fred Blair: “If everyone else thinks we’re behind, that’s fine. I would rather be the underdog. The Liberals are telling everyone that it’s a foregone conclusion.”

In fact, Liberal Leader McKenna has urged his followers to avoid complacency. And Liberal organizers say that it would be a mistake to underestimate Hatfield’s political acumen. Said one active Saint John Liberal: “I wouldn’t count Hatfield out. He has pulled it off before.”

McKenna has been careful to avoid personal attacks on Hatfield, a tactic that backfired on two of his predecessors. But by reminding audiences that he is not engaging in personal attacks, he has obliquely raised the issue. And his campaign has concentrated on leadership and the need for change after 17 years of Tory rule. McKenna says that, unlike Hatfield, “I’ve still got fire in my belly.”

For his part, Hatfield is stressing his government’s record of job creation and economic progress. In the first week of the campaign, he promised to build a $10-million bridge to Miscou Island in northeastern New Brunswick. As the leader of an officially bilingual province with a substantial Acadian minority, he also sought to cut a statesmanlike figure at the francophone summit in Quebec City.

The 45-day election period selected by Hatfield is the longest allowed by New Brunswick law—long enough, Tory strategists hope, for McKenna to make a mistake and squander his lead. But many observers say that Hatfield will have to muster all of his famous luck and skill to avoid suffering the first defeat in his remarkable 17-year reign.

KATHRYN HARLEY in Fredericton