Will the ‘McKenna Miracle’ have legs?
by Don Cayo


Smart lad, to slip betimes away

From fields where glory does not stay.

–A.E. Housman

Frank McKenna is a “smart lad” by any measure, in Housman’s bygone era or in ours. So even though he may have spoken off-handedly one day way back when he opined that 10 years was long enough for any premier, he knew what he was doing when he quit. The spectres he invoked – the sad, tragi-comic images of old burnouts like Joey Smallwood or Richard Hatfield clinging pathetically to power – were, he sometimes confessed, his worst nightmare. As well they ought to have been.

If Frank McKenna was thinking about the history books – as every politician does from time to time – he was right to quit now this field where glory does not stay. Historians may or may not come to laud him – the jury is still out. But at least they won’t laugh.

And if he was thinking about his province, as every politician says he does all the time? Well, he may still have been right to quit. Or maybe not. It all depends on what follows, regardless of whether his next significant successor comes from within Liberal ranks or from another party.

Curiously, history’s final judgment on Frank McKenna may also hang on the quality of his successor. He has done his bit, and in many ways a credible bit it was. But is his legacy a landmark in New Brunswick fortunes or a mere blip? The answer may rest out of his hands.

A hard truth about economic development – one the premier increasingly lamented as his time in office passed – is that it’s never quick. The McKenna Miracle, if there’s any such thing, is no fait accompli. It’s at best a work in progress, fledgling at that. One New Brunswicker in eight is unemployed today, no change from Oct. 13, 1987. It will take years, if not decades, of focused follow up to change the New Brunswick economy in a lasting way.

Indeed, Mr. McKenna’s greatest tangible contribution – a balanced budget and the prospect of slowly dwindling debt – is mere foundation for things that may or may not come. On job creation, he did little more than run flat out to break even. His vaunted call centre and technology jobs – a whole new sector for his province – have so far merely compensated for losses in government service, fishing, forestry and ship-building.

If the next premier, regardless of party or ideology, has the sense and strength to build on Mr. McKenna’s better policies – to balance spending with revenue, to foster both the skills and attitudes needed for success, to hustle jobs relentlessly – then the McKenna era will indeed mark the start of a turn-around for New Brunswick, and perhaps, by extension, the region. Mr. McKenna has often said that his province is on the brink of genuine expansion, not mere replacement in one sector of jobs lost in another. He makes a credible case, and it would be wonderful if it turns out to be so.

If the next significant premier happens to be someone who can also wrestle taxes down and assuage public fears about the loss of services, then – wow. It will double or triple the value of the McKenna legacy, although it will probably also mean that he’ll be over-shadowed in the history books by his replacement.

But what if a new premier takes a page from the darker side of McKenna governance? What if the new era is one of buying iffy jobs when saner policies don’t attract enough sustainable ones,? Of playing politics to favour one riding over another? Of autocratically pushing a pre-set agenda? Then the McKenna era will be remembered as just one more development fad, albeit one with slightly better legs than the mish-mash of often-contradictory policies-of-the-day that preceded.

The price of his popularity and his one-man rule is that no one really knows what kind of leader now waits in the wings. His dominance meant the ruling Liberal party may have groomed a few promising lieutenants, but it has none who’ve proved ready to be captain. And the opposition Tories have been so weak and divided for so long that nothing they do, including holding biannual leadership races like the one on now, has produced anything that looks like a leader.

And New Brunswickers need only look across the border to Nova Scotia to see how easy it is for would-be leaders who lack charisma and ideas to fall back onto old-fashioned patronage and politicized spending. That was the main plank in the platforms of most who wanted to replace the luckless John Savage.

And, speaking of Dr. Savage, who slipped from office with a fraction of the fooferaw that is accompanying Mr. McKenna’s withdrawal, has anyone else noticed that he, too, balanced his province’s budget? Or that he, too, attracted quite a nice range of jobs to replace ones being lost? Is there a possibility that history might come to treat him kindly, too? I think it might – if the next significant premier, the one who wins the next Nova Scotia election, has the sense and strength to build on his foundation.