McKenna Re-elected

It was 11:30 on the morning after the New Brunswick Liberal party's third consecutive election landslide, but Frank McKenna was still celebrating - his way. Operating on just 4½ hours of sleep, he had followed his usual morning ritual: after waking at six a.m.

McKenna Re-elected

It was 11:30 on the morning after the New Brunswick Liberal party's third consecutive election landslide, but Frank McKenna was still celebrating - his way. Operating on just 4½ hours of sleep, he had followed his usual morning ritual: after waking at six a.m., he took a 20-minute walk along the Saint John River and was eating breakfast at his desk at the New Brunswick legislature in Fredericton by seven. Since then, he had done media interviews, discussed new business opportunities with aides, and dug into the foot-deep stack of files on his desk. Finally, though, the chunky, tightly wound elder statesman of Canadian premiers felt like indulging himself a bit. And as the smoke from one of his beloved Monte Cristo Cuban cigars encircled the red balloons and streamers hanging from the office ceiling, McKenna cracked a weary smile. "I am euphoric," he said. "I feel at peace."

Well he might. At a time when public cynicism about politicians remains formidable, McKenna's restraint-minded, eight-year-old government managed the improbable - not only winning its third straight mandate but increasing its standing in the legislature by capturing 47 of 55 seats, compared with 46 in the 1991 provincial election. McKenna said he feels personally vindicated by wiping out the anti-bilingualism Confederation of Regions Party - reviled throughout francophone New Brunswick - which won eight seats in 1991 and formed the official Opposition. That privilege now falls to the Conservative party, which elected six members - including leader Bernard Valcourt - while New Democratic Party leader Elizabeth Weir will continue to hold her party's only seat in the legislature.

But the real drama will likely take place on the government benches: McKenna has repeatedly said that after a decade in office he will begin thinking about how to make the transition back to private life. In fact, the subtle jockeying for recognition among some of his key cabinet ministers was already under way last week in anticipation of McKenna's eventual departure from the premier's chair. "The preparation time could be long or medium term," the 48-year-old premier told Maclean's last week. "But the ultimate act of leadership is preparing for succession." And as the 30-day provincial election campaign amply demonstrated, McKenna seldom leaves much to chance.

Called in the dog days of summer, the campaign was the shortest in New Brunswick's history - and certainly one of the least suspenseful. The Liberals entered the race with a 30-point lead in the public opinion polls, and ended up with 51.3 per cent of the popular vote, compared with 31 per cent for the Tories, 9.8 per cent for the NDP and 7.2 per cent for COR. "Everything went according to plan," said John Bryden, the New Brunswick Senator who ran the Liberal campaign. "We saw no reason to change anything about our strategy."

That meant no extravagant campaign promises and little mixing it up in the trenches with the opposition. The Liberals simply ignored their outgunned opponents and stuck to their basic message: vote Grit because Frank McKenna is a superb leader and because the government has proved that it can deliver jobs.

The opposition parties, on the other hand, just never found their footing. The NDP seemed preoccupied with getting Weir re-elected. And COR never recovered from a series of embarrassing internal squabbles, which at one point saw three people claim the party leadership within a matter of days.

The Tories clearly gained from the collapse of COR's support. But the party's campaign, which challenged McKenna's record as premier, suffered from underfunding and poor management - and the fact that Valcourt, a feisty francophone lawyer from Edmunston who held federal cabinet posts under Brian Mulroney, failed to stir support in anglophone New Brunswick, where his party won only two seats. All the same, the election may have signalled a rebirth of sorts for the Tories, who enjoyed their best showing since Richard Hatfield's scandal-plagued government lost all 58 seats to McKenna in 1987. It may also bode well for their federal counterparts, who managed to win only one of the 31 seats in Atlantic Canada in the 1993 federal election. "We have a new beachhead in New Brunswick," declared federal Tory leader Jean Charest.

Perhaps. But for the time being, it was hard to dispute McKenna's contention last week that his party's victory represented an "overwhelmingly, absolute mandate." New Brunswickers, therefore, can expect more of the tough restraint measures that they have grown accustomed to during the past four years, which included closing 250 hospital beds and slashing about 2,400 public service jobs. At the same time, McKenna promises to be at his aggressive best in convincing new businesses to set up shop in New Brunswick - a fact underlined by an ad that appeared in Toronto newspapers three days after the election, featuring a big picture of a smiling McKenna urging business executives to "give me a call" on his 1-800-McKENNA hotline.

How much longer will he answer the call? McKenna has recently taken pains to deny an earlier pledge that he would leave provincial politics by 1997, his 10th anniversary as Liberal leader. But even at Liberal victory parties last week, speculation persisted that he will not lead the party into the next provincial election, choosing instead to enter the business world or federal politics, where he is viewed by some party activists as a potential successor to Prime Minister Jean Chrétien. As one insider put it, "After this, Frank's problem is, what can you do for an encore?"

Either way, his legacy will be considerable - innovative social programs, a vastly improved fiscal situation that this February saw his government produce its first balanced budge, and a new sense of pride among New Brunswickers. But it is on the economic front that McKenna ultimately wants to be judged. Towards the end of the election campaign, the Royal Bank of Canada predicted that New Brunswick's would be the second-strongest provincial economy in 1995-1996. And throughout the contest, the Liberals maintained that 20,000 more New Brunswickers were working now than in 1991. (The Tories claimed that the government actually created only 5,000 jobs during their last mandate.)

After the 1991 vote, McKenna says that he felt a lot of inner turmoil - ecstatic about his party's impressive victory but shaken by the emergence of COR and the defeat of a number of party stalwarts. Last week, he showed no hint of anguish standing on a stage at the victory party, dancing stiffly but enthusiastically next to his wife Julie - to whom he made the original pledge not to make a career out of politics - and daughter, Tina, a student at St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, N.S. Finally escaping the crowds, they headed back to the couple's white clapboard Fredericton home where McKenna called his son Jamie, a university student in Montreal and fellow political junkie, to provide a riding-by-riding breakdown of the results. Then, the premier-elect settled into an easy chair, grabbed the remote control and channel surfed until 2:30 a.m. "I missed a lot of sports scores throughout the campaign," he later explained. "I wanted to catch up."

Back in his office the next day, McKenna was still mulling over the implications of his victory. "Winning this kind of mandate means that you can't be complacent for a second," he said. "It is exhilarating but draining. I feel a huge sense of responsibility." But for all of the fretting, even McKenna - who runs every campaign as if trailing the pack - couldn't disguise the sweetness of the moment. And as he enjoyed his fragrant Monte Cristo, he looked truly serene.

Maclean's September 25, 1995