The New Brunswick election
by Fred McMahon
The Moncton Times and Transcript, The Halifax Daily News
In 1984, Pierre Trudeau – full of hubris and distaste for his successor – let it be know that he considered Conservative Brian Mulroney a better heir to the Prime Ministership than new Liberal leader John Turner.
Trudeau went further. He tricked Turner, newly appointed as Prime Minister, into making outrageous patronage appointments of Trudeau chums. Mulroney nailed him in the 1984 leaders’ debate: “You had a choice, sir,” Mulroney charged, his finger wagging.
Turner’s choice was to reject the appointments Trudeau saddled him with. But he didn’t. Trudeau’s revenge was complete. Turner looked silly and weak. Mulroney swept to power.
In New Brunswick, Frank McKenna played none of Trudeau’s vindictive tricks on new Liberal leader Camille Theriault. McKenna stayed out of the limelight, well aware his star status could detract by comparison from Theriault’s lacklustre presence. Quietly, in public and private, McKenna supported Theriault and spoke of him with affection and admiration.
Yet, dynamic Conservative Leader Bernard Lord seems a far more fitting successor to McKenna than the drab Theriault, who became Liberal leader after McKenna retired.
Lord swept to power in last week’s New Brunswick election. In retrospect, it’s no wonder Lord won. The McKenna revolution was going off the rails under Theriault. For example, knowledgeable insiders spoke of a shift in emphasis away from work on primary roads, with their great economic importance, to secondary roads, with their great political importance in providing political favours, hiring the faithful and harvesting votes.
Theriault’s plan for automatic increases in health care spending was downright silly – nominal health care spending would increase at least as much as real GDP (gross domestic product) growth. But there’s no relation between health care needs and GDP growth. The cost of health care is correlated with population age and advances in technology, not how fast the economy is growing.
This was not a health plan, it was a campaign slogan, which disguised the fact it would allow cuts in real health care spending. Say inflation is three per cent and real economic growth is two per cent. A two per cent increase in health care spending is below the rate of inflation. In real terms, spending has been cut.
In the end, New Brunswick Liberal Leader Theriault seemed much like Nova Scotia Liberal Leader Russell MacLellan – a throwback to the old style of patronage and sloganeering politics. Theriault spent much of his year in office saying he was no Frank McKenna and that the spending taps would once again be turned on, if cautiously.
Lord, on the other hand, seems cut in the McKenna mold – energetic and driven by policy, not politics and patronage.
He has his work cut out for him. The Conservative platform – like virtually all political documents – has glaring contradictions. Lord promised to cut taxes, eliminate tolls on the Fredericton-to-Moncton highway, increase health care spending, hire hundreds of additional nurses, and maintain a balanced budget.
That means Lord has circles to square. He possesses some advantages. The New Brunswick economy is healthier than it’s ever been. On a per capita basis, it’s sped past Nova Scotia, despite Nova Scotia’s offshore development.
That’ll help with tax revenues. The tax cut itself won’t be a dead loss since it too will spark further economic growth. Eliminating tolls also eliminates the cost of collecting them.
And, the Conservative platform has lots of good ideas that won’t cost money, but will spur economic growth and job creation. The best one is to remove trade barriers between the Atlantic provinces. That we still have barriers to trade in this region just shows how parochial and harmful our politics can be.
Still to provide tax cuts, toll cuts and new health care spending, Lord will have to take a knife to other expenditure areas, expenditures which all too often have more to do with politics than good policy. He’s made a symbolic start by slashing the size of the New Brunswick cabinet.
But this is a tough road. Cutting even non-essential spending will offend powerful special interest groups, and that’s dangerous politics.
But, if Lord has the courage and persistence to travel this road, he will stand as a worthy successor to Frank McKenna and, like McKenna, will improve New Brunswick’s prospects and the every day lives of the people of the province. If not, New Brunswick will return to the desperate days of deficit spending, as Nova Scotia already has.
In a recent interview, Frank McKenna offered some good advice to Lord. The advice didn’t deal with policy, but it’s essential if Lord is to make the difficult choices. “His job will not be easy,” said McKenna, “and you can only do it if you have such passionate beliefs that you will not let obstacles get in your way. Otherwise, you’ll just be another politician.”