Political scientists say Shawn Graham gov’t has made huge decisions without effectively explaining them to NBers

From changes to education and health care to the NB Power deal, Shawn Graham’s Liberal government has been embroiled in controversy since taking office, with New Brunswickers repeatedly asking the question: “What is he doing?”

Political scientists at the province’s universities aren’t quite sure, but say the premier needs to change his tactics if he wants to keep his job after the next election on Sept. 27.

In his state of the province address this week, Graham admitted he should be doing a better job of explaining his party’s long-term objective of self-sufficiency. The premier further admitted that perhaps his government should do a better job of communicating.

“He has bigger problems than simple communication ,” says Wayne Hunt, a political science professor at Mount Allison University. “It’s a failure to communicate with society. Health care and education are cornerstones of government. He has made huge decisions and tried to get them done quickly, and then switching to something else without effectively explaining what they are doing.”

Back in the days when Frank McKenna was premier, his cabinet ministers would take every opportunity to talk about the emerging technology of the “information superhighway” and how it was going to transform New Brunswick into a new economic power.

It was the early 1990s and many people didn’t yet realize how the Internet would affect our business climate but McKenna and his team kept hammering at the message over and over until people grasped the concept.

Little more than a decade later, the Internet has a huge impact on our daily lives at home and at work. It has also become a favourite tool for political critics to bash the government and its decisions.

“The effect of instant communication is that it gives people a voice to fan the flames to the boiling point much faster than before. People get angrier much faster today,” says Don Desserud, professor of political science at the University of New Brunswick in Saint John.

Desserud says McKenna left a lasting legacy as a man of action who took care of details, while current New Brunswick Premier Shawn Graham has tried to be a man of action, but is trying to make too many changes without taking the time to thoroughly think them through. Fans of McKenna say he had a way of articulating his plans so people could understand them, and then he would repeat the message over and over. In a similar way, Graham’s team has constantly repeated the Liberal buzz-word of “self-sufficiency” at every news conference, funding announcement and change to government policy.

Graham has said big changes are necessary for the province to move ahead but critics, unions and special interest groups have been quick to shoot down the changes, forcing the government to backtrack on some of the big decisions. Hunt says people now have the impression that the Liberal team is fractured and running scared with 239 days to the next election.

Hunt says the changes to French immersion, the reorganization of the health-care system, layoffs of education support workers and other changes represent “seat of the pants decision-making” that tend to infuriate the voters who are already anxious about the economy and their way of life.

“When you make big changes, your main task is to inform people before you do it, and they’ve failed dismally.”

Hunt says governments need to slow down and get to know each file before they make big changes and communicate the need for changes so people will believe their issues are being looked after in a competent way. He believes the current government has gotten off track and needs to stop and get back on track before it is too late.

Desserud says the art of governing requires balance for everyone from Barack Obama to Stephen Harper to Shawn Graham. He says former Conservative premier Bernard Lord had a reputation for studying issues to death without making a decision, while Graham has tried to become a man of action. He believes Graham has the potential to get better with experience but may have angered New Brunswickers too much to get the chance.

“He’s been consistently embroiled in controversy that has taken its toll.”

Desserud said big decisions, followed by controversy and backtracking, mean that less important files get lost in the clouds. He believes Graham should have been a little less brash and spent more time on consultation and study before rushing through with big changes.

Desserud says McKenna, the Liberal who swept all 58 seats in the Legislature and remained premier for 10 years, took care of details and got New Brunswick started on the road to economic recovery. He believes one of McKenna’s greatest legacies is that he changed the perception of New Brunswick in the eyes of the outside world, showing them that the small province that had long been considered a have-not burden on the national economy was able to stand up on its own.

McKenna made a name for himself by knocking on the doors of national companies and convincing their bosses to look at New Brunswick as a place to set up shop. During McKenna’s administration in the early 1990s, his cabinet ministers took every opportunity to talk about the benefits of the emerging “information highway” (the Internet) and how embracing this new technology would usher in a new era of business and commerce to New Brunswick. It was a clear message, and it turned out to be a prophesy that came true, thanks largely to the vision and co-operation of provincial telephone company NB Tel, before it was swallowed up by Aliant and lost its identity.

Desserud says the emotional scar left behind when NB Tel’s identity was scraped away could still be nagging New Brunswickers, and believes that’s one of the reasons people have been so angry about the deal with Hydro-Quebec — they didn’t want to lose one of their time-honoured institutions, NB Power.

Donald Wright, associate professor of political science at the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton, declined to criticize the Graham Liberals directly, but said all governments need to realize that today’s society demands to be part of the decision-making process.

“The new decision-making process must be community based and involve the stakeholders. You need round tables, meetings and commissions. It’s not enough to hire communications experts to create glossy brochures that go in everybody’s mailbox. Decisions have to be made from the ground up, not from the top down, especially major policy decisions. In today’s world, people don’t automatically line up behind the party that is elected.”

Wright said governments often have to make difficult and unpopular decisions, but they need to explain why they are doing them. The controversial NB Power deal is a prime example.

“The decision could be right, but the people feel like they weren’t consulted, that they weren’t participating, that they didn’t have a say in the decision.”

Wright says today’s media-savvy New Brunswickers are quick to voice their opinions and criticisms of government decisions through various public opinion venues, forming an instant opposition and sounding board.

He says society has evolved over the last 40 years or so into a much less deferential culture that no longer goes along with what the government decrees, so governments must find better ways to consult with the public before making big changes.

He agrees that more consultations, reports and studies result in a much slower process but governments can spare themselves the political grief in the end by bringing in more experts to help provide information and choices before the decision is made. An example could be the restoration of the Petitcodiac River, which went through many years of studies and environmental assessments. But in the end someone has to make the decision and there will always be critics who disagree with the course of action.

And when it comes to long-term goals, he says governments must constantly work on getting the consent of the people over time.

Charles Cirtwill, president and CEO of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies says he appreciates the New Brunswick’s government’s willingness to boldly move forward with an initiative, take a beating, then change its mind based on what it is hearing.

“I admire their willingness to debate it. I am a little concerned that they seem too willing to change. I think they have let several very good public policy ideas go to the wayside because New Brunswickers weren’t ready for them yet,” he says.