by Kate Wright
OTTAWA – In maintaining diplomatic relations with the federal government — and resisting the urge for public brawls — Premier Shawn Graham believes his positive style of working with Prime Minister Stephen Harper will reap rewards for the province.
In an interview with the Times & Transcript, Graham heralds his cordial, under-the-radar style of federal-provincial relations as deliberate — and he has proof that it is working.
Harper has visited the province three times this summer, a sign that the country’s leader is in tune with the province’s needs, said Graham.
He said he also received word from Harper’s top advisors that the Prime Minister’s Office was pleased with the outcome of the recent Council of the Federation meetings in Moncton.
He said the province really “punched above its weight” and held a productive premiers’ meeting, something Ottawa is taking note of.
“I have not talked to the prime minister directly following the meetings, but I did talk to some key people and they were very pleased,” he said. “That’s coupled with the fact that we kept on a positive message that stayed away from bashing the federal government.”
In light of the very public battles being waged between the feds and provinces such as Nova Scotia and Newfoundland over offshore oil revenues, Graham said New Brunswick has shone as a beacon of positive relations.
Earlier this year, the premiers of Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and Saskatchewan were involved in a very public brawl with Harper over resource revenues.
Nova Scotia Premier Rodney MacDonald went as far as trekking to Ottawa to make his case to Harper. Others threatened legal action against the federal government under their claim that their individual accords were broken in this year’s federal budget.
As someone who will soon be asking the federal government to contribute nearly $500 million to his goal of making New Brunswick self-sufficient by 2026, Graham believes he needs to maintain a positive public image with his federal counterparts.
“I may be criticized in some corners for not taking on an adversarial position with the federal government, but I feel our position is working and we’re going to continue in that direction,” he said.
“The government of Canada is ready to work with provinces that want to stand on their own two feet and want to work in a positive manner.”
This week, Harper took part in Acadian Day festivities in Caraquet, where the premier had the chance to bend his ear about the need for development in northern New Brunswick.
Joined by federal Liberal Leader Stéphane Dion, Graham likened the day to being on a “double date.” Having high-powered leaders in his corner is proof his strategy is working, said Graham.
“There are always going to be partisan Liberals that would like us to go out and fight the Conservatives on a national level,” he said. “It is very easy to fall into the habit of bashing the federal government and I strategically made sure New Brunswick didn’t fall into that trap.”
But Charles Cirtwill, acting president of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, said Graham hasn’t really had any reason to fight the federal Tories.
While their relationship seems strong now, Cirtwill said Graham shouldn’t rely on being cozy with the PM.
“If he thinks it’s an insurance policy, there is evidence from administrations in Ottawa and Atlantic Canada that would tell him it’s no guarantee,” he said.
“Of course things are easier when there are no frictions and Graham really hasn’t had a reason to start a fight.”
Cirtwill said Rodney MacDonald chose a similar approach as Graham in the beginning of his mandate.
But as pressures mounted between the provincial and federal governments over offshore oil revenues, Cirtwill said MacDonald was forced to take the battle public.
While Harper may be looking to boost his approval ratings in New Brunswick, Cirtwill said he hasn’t really taken the opportunity to demonstrate that.
He said Harper’s visits are likely timed to send a message to Nova Scotia and Newfoundland, although he’s not entirely convinced that Harper is rewarding Graham for his good behaviour.
For example, the prime minister’s recent trip to Fredericton with a cheque for provincial highways was money that had already been dedicated to the province.
Bill Denyar, president of the Atlantic Provinces Chambers of Commerce, said New Brunswick would truly benefit if all Atlantic provinces could work together to rally the federal government.
While it’s important for premiers to fight for their respective provinces, Denyar said coming together as a region could help the area gain political clout.
“Graham’s obviously got his own agenda and he’s looking out for New Brunswick, but we have to step up above that and look at the bigger picture,” he said.
“What’s good for Nova Scotia is good for New Brunswick is good for Prince Edwards Island.
“If we want a different future then our past, it’s the only option.”