Anyone but the old premiers.
by Don Cayo
RUSSELL MacLellan just may be a one-trick pony. But as long as the new Nova Scotia Premier continues to master that trick — the fine art of not being John Savage, the man he succeeded as Liberal leader — voters seem willing to prance with him all the way to the polls.
Dr. Savage’s 50 months as premier actually left a legacy that, in other parts, might be a matter of pride. He controlled spending. He balanced the budget.
Some say it was his aristocratic demeanour that soured folks against him; he may be a family doctor, but his political bedside manner is stern. Some say his stand against patronage irked old-school party members so much that he lost all his potential defenders. Or maybe it’s just Nova Scotians, out of step with times that call for leaner programs and less pork. Whatever the cause, nobody thanks him for a better balance sheet. Least of all his party.
Mr. MacLellan has looser purse strings for subsidies and and a looser tongue for warm, fuzzy promises. In the seven months before he called a spring election, the former MP took care to underline that he had no part in the Savage cuts, and that he’s not averse to helping out the party faithful.
The upshot is that he’s widely expected to win on March 24. So certain seems the outcome that informed speculation busies itself with guessing not who will be the next government, but who will form the opposition — the NDP or the Tories.
It’s no surprise that a politician or a party spurns a reviled former leader. But to me, a Maritimer who splits his time between Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, it’s odd to see it also happening in Frank McKenna’s former domain.
By most measures that matter (i.e. plaudits in Canada’s National Newspaper), Mr. McKenna was a Miracle Man. Yet all three contenders for the job he vacated are running in large measure on a platform of, I’m not Frank McKenna. Indeed they’re not. But why brag about it?
I see three possible reasons.
The first is smart politics. These guys are unproven; they were mere cabinet ministers playing second fiddle in Mr. McKenna’s one-man band. So if they are not Frank McKenna, and if no one knows whether they can ever be his equal, it’s wise to keep expectations low.
Or maybe they bad-mouth the former boss because, as they well know, it hasn’t been all peaches and cream here in New Brunswick. Despite a sterling reputation outside the province, Mr. McKenna had critics at home. And their numbers were growing — though not to the point where he was in much danger of losing had he stayed for another election. But the new guys seem to think it’s worth cultivating a little distance from the past to try to win back the dissenters.
How much distance? Well, their public pronouncements are fairly moderate, mostly couched in spin about moving forward into a new era. But in private, say some insiders, harsher words are uttered.
It reached the point where interim premier Ray Frenette stepped in. Whether it’s the public or the private musings that got his goat is hard to say, but he called the three candidates together two weeks ago to chat about solidarity. Mr. Frenette plays down the meeting, but Greg Byrne, the youngest and greenest of the three hopefuls, says they were told to cool it, to toe the party line.
WHICH brings us to the third reason would-be New Brunswick premiers might turn their backs on the McKenna legacy. They are Liberals in the true Canadian sense of the word.
That term in Canada rarely delineates the philosophical fine points of “liberal” versus “classical liberal” versus “conservative” et al. Here, Liberal is a workaday adjective that modifies the amount of money most office-holders like to spend. Energy Minister Byrne, Economic Development Minister Camille Theriault (the front-runner) and Education Minister Bernard Richard are all signalling an end to austerity, a return to Liberal spending.
It’s the same in Nova Scotia with Mr. MacLellan’s un-Savage governance. It’s the same in the Liberals’ federal caucus, with rare exceptions — most notably Finance Minister Paul Martin. The Red Book’s pious promise to spend half the growing surplus on programs and half to pay down debt is, in fact, a huge money grab. All taxes grow with the GDP; income taxes soar even faster on the auto-pilot of bracket creep and the absence of indexed exemptions. Jeffrey Rubin, chief economist for CIBC Wood Gundy, says these built-in increases will drive the surplus far and fast.
Given modest growth, he reckons that by early in the next decade the Red Book formula will mean spending growth of 6 per cent a year. That’s worse than during the bad old days that got us into trouble.
The provinces’ income-tax revenues rise in lock step with Ottawa’s, of course. But voters down here don’t need a provincial Red Book to see where that extra money is going. It’s going to be spent.
Don Cayo is on leave from The Telegraph Journal in Saint John to serve as president of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, a social and economic policy think-tank.