One-party democracy

After a year, Frank McKenna is riding high

PAUL KAIHLA October 17 1988

One-party democracy

After a year, Frank McKenna is riding high

PAUL KAIHLA October 17 1988

One-party democracy


After a year, Frank McKenna is riding high

Fernand Landry, deputy minister in the premier’s office, weaves the government-leased Ford Crown Victoria in and out of traffic. Beside him in the front seat, New Brunswick’s fresh-faced Liberal premier, Frank McKenna, animatedly conducts business on the car’s cellular phone. During the 20-minute drive from the legislature in Fredericton to the airport, McKenna returns messages from Saint John Mayor Elsie Wayne, chief executive officer of the New Brunswick Nurses Union Tom Mann, and a government minister. The premier is running late for a meeting at the French-language CBC radio station in Moncton—a half-hour plane ride away. But as the car roars through the outskirts of Fredericton, McKenna is more concerned about the government’s current contract negotiations with the nurses’ union.

He calls Mann to explain the budgetary constraints behind the province’s latest wage offer. “The public is really worried about health care,” says McKenna. “Medicare is already over budget by $10 to $12 million and it is ready to explode.”

McKenna often finds himself worrying about how to shave dollars from New Brunswick’s bloated deficit. One year after his election as the province’s 27th premier on Oct. 13, 1987, and his Liberal party’s historic sweep of all 58 seats in the legislature, McKenna is at the mercy of an accumulated provincial debt of $2.92 billion that he inherited from former preg mier Richard Hatfield’s Conser| vative government. As a result, o the government’s only dramatic | measures, apart from wrestling o with the' annual budget deficit ° in an attempt to slow the inMcKenna: crease of the provincial debt, have been its campaign against patronage in the province and McKenna’s stem opposition to the Meech Lake constitutional accord. After one year in office, and with no opposition party in the legislature, McKenna has also presided over the most unusual experiment in recent Canadian parliamentary democracy. Yet democracy it appears to have been: even critics concede that the Liberals have behaved moderately and responded quickly to criticism from the public and the media.

In fact, McKenna’s popularity seems to

have held since last fall. At that time, the Liberals won a landslide 62 per cent of the popular vote, compared with 28 per cent for the Conservatives and 10 per cent for the New Democratic Party. The tireless rookie premier—at 40 he is Canada’s youngest provincial leader—still behaves like a politician on the stump, often visiting two or three communities a week. McKenna, raised in the dairy farming community of Apohaqui, 60 km northeast of Saint John, also takes frequent language lessons to improve his French. Said Stephen Patterson, professor of history at

the University of New Brunswick and a former provincial Liberal candidate: “McKenna has gone for the appearance of a government that is hardworking, honest and diligent. It is not Mussolini’s Italy, and most people do not see it as such.”

Indeed, McKenna, who promised to put a new economic face on New Brunswick, has given priority to lowering the deficit and fighting unemployment, which stands at almost 11 per cent, the second-highest provincial level in the nation. Through a series of

spending cuts, and $50 million in new revenues from a robust economy and increased taxes, the Liberals boast that by the end of this fiscal year, they expect to reduce the government’s annual budget deficit to $40 million from $103 million in the 1987 fiscal year. But that will still add to the provincial debt. And some critics say that the government is exaggerating. Thomas Good, for one, a professor of economics at Fredericton’s St. Thomas University and an NDP supporter, claims that the increased value of the Canadian dollar has accounted for much of the reduction in the annual deficit because of reduced interest payments on the provincial debt to U.S. bond houses.

McKenna came to power on the heels of an economic recovery—led by the pulp and paper industry—during which New Brunswick’s unemployment rate fell below 14 per cent in 1986 for the first time in four years. But as a result of its budget-cutting efforts, the Liberal government has been unable to introduce any major new programs. McKenna told Maclean’s last week, “I would like nothing more than to create deficits as part of a plan to create jobs, but we have no room to manoeuvre.”

McKenna is also trying to fight self-satisfaction in his ranks. Of the 68 bills that his government introduced in its first year, 17 were sent to legislative committees where the public and opposition parties made presentations. As well, McKenna has allowed TV

cameras into the legislature for Question Period, during which backbench Liberal MLAs ask questions—a system that often results in cabinet members being suspiciously well-prepared. Many New Brunswickers clearly remain uneasy about the lack of political opposition. Said Joan MacLean, 35, a waitress in Fredericton’s Diplomat Dining Room and an NDP supporter: “There should be someone to yank back on the leash when the government is doing something wrong.”

Still, as McKenna crisscrosses the prov-

The nation’s youngest premier still behaves like a politician running for office

ince, he is inevitably, and usually favorably, compared with his Conservative predecessor, Richard Hatfield—who was premier for 17 years. Many New Brunswickers said that Hatfield’s government was arrogant during its final months, when it enjoyed a comfortable majority with 37 seats, compared to 20 for the Liberals and one for the NDP. Hatfield himself was engulfed in controversy during his last three years in office after being

charged with marijuana possession in 1984— a provincial court acquitted him in January, 1985. Meanwhile, Hatfield’s extended trips out of the province and a widespread perception that he had an exotic lifestyle attracted criticism from his own MLAs.

On the first anniversary of McKenna’s triumph, there are few signs of revival among the Tories or the NDP—traditionally a minor fixture in the province. Interim Tory Leader Malcolm MacLeod, 60, a retired Moncton supermarket and bowling alley owner who succeeded Hatfield last November, receives no salary and spends only two to three days a week in the provincial capital. Although a leadership convention has been called for next fall, no candidates have yet emerged. NDP Leader Elizabeth Weir, 39, who was her party’s executive director until she replaced former leader George Little at a June convention, has probably been the most visible opposition politician. But the NDP is hampered by a $100,000 campaign debt—while the Tories have a $37,000 debt. The Liberals, meanwhile, are debt-free.

Although McKenna provided the Tories and NDP with free space for opposition offices and expanded the legislature’s library services largely for their benefit, both Weir and MacLeod—who served as Tory house leader under Hatfield—have bitterly criticized the premier’s decision not to provide public funds for their opposition office operating expenses—which they must raise themselves.

Said Weir: “One-party rule is generally not regarded as a democracy. It is more analogous to some East European situation than anything we have seen.” Still, despite the Liberals’ total control of the assembly, some observers say that McKenna’s massive victory has actually given New Brunswick a more democratic government. Said Gary Lawson, president of the 400-member Saint John Board of Trade: “The government is bending over backwards now to ensure that

they do not become arrogant with their power. Hatfield ran the government autocratically. He ran it as if he had 58 seats.” McKenna supporters say that one of his assets is that he is an ordinary fellow. They say that his only extravagance is the $220,000 bungalow he bought in Fredericton in 1987, where he lives with his wife, Julie, and three children—Tobias, who turns 16 this week, Christine, 13, and James, 11. In his off-hours, the premier reads espionage

thrillers such as Tom Clancy’s The Hunt for Red October, jogs most mornings, plays a weekly tennis game with three members of his staff and, in the winter, takes his family skiing at Mont Farlagne near Edmundston, N.B. Said George LeBlanc, 77, a retired construction worker who lives in a trailer park in Pokiok, N.B., 45 km west of Fredericton: “McKenna’s doing an excellent job. We just had to get rid of Hatfield.” Since his defeat, Hatfield, 57, has maintained a low profile—and a dignified silence on provincial politics. On Sept. 23, appearing at a fund-raising event for Fredericton’s Beaverbrook Art Gallery, Hatfield refused to answer reporters’ questions about the new Liberal government. But the former premier, who lives alone in a modest bungalow 1.5 km from the legislature, has appeared on local television programs to comment about the U.S. presidential election and is writing his political memoirs. McKenna has set a torrid pace. His penchant for hard work has permeated the government. Reporters have nicknamed Fredericton’s Centennial Building, which houses the premier’s office, “Frank’s 7-11”—after the chain of convenience stores—because of the premier’s long working days. McKenna’s hours are a holdover from his career as a young criminal lawyer in Chatham, N.B., where he first won election as a Liberal MLA in 1982. McKenna’s cabinet and several government committees meet at 8 a.m., and the

premier spends the rest of the day poring over briefing books, conducting interviews with reporters and meeting with ministers, deputy ministers and interest groups. By contrast, Hatfield usually arrived at the office in a chauffeur-driven limousine in midmorning and held his cabinet meetings at 3 p.m.

In personal terms, many of McKenna's Liberal acquaintances compare the no-nonsense premier with Massachusetts governor and U.S. Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis. Said Arthur Doyle, author of the book Premiers of New Brunswick and a Liberal supporter: “Both Dukakis and Mc-

Kenna are very driven and very private.” In fact, ever since a visit with Dukakis when McKenna was the Liberal opposition leader, the two have kept in touch and the premier has asked Dukakis for advice on economic management. The Office of Economic Development in New Brunswick, which is attached to the premier’s office, is modelled after Massachusetts’s agency of the same name. Meanwhile, because of the huge provincial debt, there are few moves McKenna can make to achieve a short-term economic boost for the province without help from the federal government. Last month, Ottawa an-

nounced a $ 70-million education and jobtraining program for 15to 24-year-olds, in which New Brunswick would pick up $21 million of the costs. But the province has not yet received a detailed response to a request for $1.4 billion for a $1.9-billion highwayimprovement program—including a proposal to widen the Trans-Canada Highway to four lanes across New Brunswick.

On constitutional matters, Ottawa and Fredericton do not see eye to eye. McKenna told Maclean ’s that he did not wish to scuttle the Meech Lake accord, which brings Quebec into the Constitution by guaranteeing it the right to promote a distinct society. But he has refused to sign the agreement, which requires the assent of all 10 provinces and the federal government by June, 1990. Manitoba is the only other holdout, but Premier Gary Filmon has said that he will introduce a resolution to ratify Meech Lake during Manitoba's current legislative session. Last month, the New Brunswick legislature began hearings on the agreement, and McKenna’s administration is currently discussing with Quebec and other provinces the possibility of improving guarantees for minority rights. Said one senior provincial official: “It is our game to play from start to finish. The pressure is on the other provinces, and as time goes by, the party with the strongest hand usually gets stronger.”

During his first year in office, McKenna has perhaps faced his toughest criticism from members of his own party. One of his most controversial acts was to remove the most blatant uses of patronage from New Brunswick political life. Many Liberals are clearly angry with those reforms, particularly the transfer of responsibility for hiring summer students for government departments from MLAs to the federal Canada Employment agency. Said Patterson: “What we are getting is an overwhelming reaction against the very idea of patronage, without distinguishing the more corrupt aspects from the more sensible.” Last summer, one student was refused a job as a legislature page because she came from a prominent Liberal family. Said Patricia Landers, 44, president of the Saint John federal Liberal riding association: “I don’t think that because you are a Liberal it should be held against you.”

But the self-assured McKenna insists that his government is on the right track. “A lot of party members do not want to face the new realities,” said the premier. “I did not expect to be elected with 58 seats. We have an obligation to all of New Brunswick.” And although political observers say that the current Liberal stranglehold is a temporary aberration, there are no byelections on the horizon that would realistically give the other political parties an opportunity to test McKenna’s record. For now, New Brunswick will remain under one-party government, and McKenna will be the undisputed boss of the Liberals—and the province.

PAUL KAIHLA in Fredericton