McKenna Retires | The Canadian Encyclopedia


McKenna Retires

In political circles, the glass-walled building in downtown Fredericton where Frank McKenna toiled for 10 years as New Brunswick premier was sometimes known as "Frank’s 7-11.

This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on October 20, 1997

McKenna Retires

In political circles, the glass-walled building in downtown Fredericton where Frank McKenna toiled for 10 years as New Brunswick premier was sometimes known as "Frank's 7-11." The moniker referred to McKenna's penchant for beginning his work day at dawn's early light and remaining on the job well into the evening hours. He was, by his own frequent admission, a man obsessed - a premier who fretted over every detail during his tenure, from waging the good fight on national unity to designing a uniform New Brunswick logo for all government stationery. In announcing his resignation last week, McKenna said it was "like I have the weight of the world off my shoulders," adding that he looked forward to making up for lost years with his wife, Julie, and their three children. So, is one of Canada's best-known workaholics finally ready to stop and smell the roses? Presented with that question in an interview with Maclean's, McKenna smiled, then lightly chuckled. "I'm going to have to work at that," he said.

McKenna's self-improvement regimen began this week. As of Oct. 13 - appropriately enough, Thanksgiving day - he resigned as premier, leader of the New Brunswick Liberal party and MLA for the riding of Miramichi-Bay du Vin. His future plans remained vague - the 49-year-old McKenna joked last week about posting his résumé at the nearest Canada Manpower centre. But he swiftly scotched several rumored appointments, including one that would see him serve as one of Prime Minister Jean Chrétien's point men on the national unity file. He also dismissed the widely held view in Ottawa that he has his eye ultimately on the leadership of the federal Liberal party. "There's not some thirst that needs quenching," he told Maclean's. "Whatever thirst I had has been quenched."

In New Brunswick, at least, his words on that matter are taken largely at face value. Longtime friends and associates insist that McKenna has little desire to become prime minister and that, in fact, he may be inherently wrong for the job. They point out that McKenna's obsessively hands-on style of governing worked well in a small, tight-knit province of only 730,000 people, but would drive both the leader and his followers to distraction if he had to juggle the interests of over 30 million Canadians from widely disparate regions. Others note that McKenna - who is as notoriously frugal in private life as he was in managing the province's finances - is probably eager to capitalize on what promise to be some productive years in the private sector. "My guess," says Donald Savoie, a professor of public administration at the University of Moncton and a friend of McKenna's, "is that he'll open a law practice in Fredericton, perhaps associate with a law firm in Toronto, sit on five or six major corporate boards - and make money."

Amid the intense speculation about McKenna's personal future last week, there was also a growing recognition of how profoundly his province had changed during his years in office. His supporters credited McKenna with giving New Brunswickers a renewed sense of purpose and optimism, putting the government's previously dismal fiscal house in order, and bringing hundreds of new enterprises and thousands of jobs to the province through his relentless promotion of New Brunswick as a place to do business. His detractors argued that New Brunswickers had paid far too steep a price for the so-called McKenna miracle. They maintained that the gap between the rich and the poor had never been so great, or the holes in the province's social safety net so severe. In a telling remark following his resignation, McKenna seemed to acknowledge there might be some truth to both versions. Compared to 10 years ago, he said, the province is better off. He then added: "I don't think all of the people in the province are better off."

McKenna was given free rein to reshape New Brunswick in his own image in 1987 when, in his first election as party leader, the Liberals won all 58 seats in the legislature. It was a heady time for McKenna, who had grown up on a dairy farm and practised criminal law in rural New Brunswick before first winning a seat in the provincial legislature in 1982. (Three years later, he won the leadership of the Liberal party, just as the three-term Conservative government of Richard Hatfield was beginning to implode after years of scandal and financial profligacy.)

McKenna started to look at ways to diversify the economy beyond such traditional pillars as forestry, mining and fishing. He hit upon the information technology sector as one that could flourish in even the remotest corner of the continent and that might well be attracted by the province's low labor and land costs as well as its bilingual workforce. He then embarked on his now-famous brand of salesmanship: cold-calling corporate executives to sing New Brunswick's praises, plugging his 1-800-McKenna hotline during press conferences, and crisscrossing the country on promotional trips that proved so effective some of his fellow premiers accused him of poaching on their turf. Those efforts netted big fish - among them Purolator Courier Ltd., Federal Express Canada Ltd. and CP Express & Transport - and what the government claims are 7,000 new jobs at provincial call centres.

On a separate front, McKenna, who inherited a $370-million budgetary deficit from the Conservatives, launched a concerted attack on government spending. Provincial departments were consolidated and the number of deputy ministers cut in half; 3,700 civil servants lost their jobs and the rest faced temporary wage freezes. The number of school boards went from 42 to just two, encompassing 16 districts. The province's 51 hospital boards were consolidated into eight regional corporations and the growth in health-care spending dropped from 10 per cent in 1987 to under one per cent in 1997. The net effect: New Brunswick, despite taking a $300-million annual cut in federal transfer payments, became the first province in Canada to deliver a balanced budget in fiscal 1994-1995. It has been running in the black ever since, albeit with an accumulated debt of $5.3 billion.

Savoie observes that, throughout it all, McKenna acted more like the chief executive officer of the province than its premier. "He didn't leave it to bureaucrats or ministers to identify the savings," says Savoie. "He dove into the expenditure budget and literally squeezed it. No detail was too small." Savoie credits McKenna with being the first premier to recognize the pitfalls of deficit financing, and for blazing the trail for even more radical budget-cutters such as Alberta's Ralph Klein and Ontario's Mike Harris. McKenna's efforts are also widely praised by members of the New Brunswick business community. "Before McKenna, people weren't thinking entrepreneurial, of being competitive globally," says Alistair MacDonald, one of three New Brunswick partners who established MCM Technology Inc., a fast-growing computer software company. "Today, people feel they can be as good as anyone outside New Brunswick."

At the street level, though, the view of the McKenna regime is not always so benign. Critics point out that, for all the hype about job creation, the province's unemployment rate has barely budged - it was 12.4 per cent in August, 1987, 11.9 per cent in September, 1997. Also dismaying, they say, is the fact that New Brunswick provides the lowest level of social assistance in the country - and that McKenna openly used the lure of low wages to attract corporations to the province. "The government showed little or no interest in people at the low end of the pay scale," says Brian Perkins-McIntosh, a United Church minister and Fredericton-based anti-poverty activist. "He made it an attractive place for certain employers, but that was on the backs of their workers."

There were other undeniable strains. While the province has had no hospital closures, New Brunswick Nurses Union president Linda Silas says that there has been a reduction of more than 700 nursing positions since 1993. A union survey last year found that 80 per cent of nurses believed staffing levels were inadequate and their work loads posed a risk to patients; Silas says that a recently completed public survey shows that 76 per cent agree hospitals are understaffed. "The premier was an excellent politician," says Silas. "He wanted a balanced budget and he got it. But health care has been hit too hard."

Public anger has also erupted over the province's attempts to close down schools in response to dwindling enrollment. But despite the sometimes wrenching changes, McKenna and his government remained remarkably popular. The Liberals won lopsided majorities again in 1991 and 1995 (they currently hold 47 seats, compared with six for the Tories and one for the NDP). And whoever succeeds McKenna - deputy premier Ray Frenette will fill the post until a leadership convention is held, likely next spring - faces an enviable situation. The latest poll, taken in August by Corporate Research Associates, showed the Liberals commanding 52-per-cent support among decided voters, compared with 20 per cent for the NDP and 18 per cent for the currently leaderless Tories.

If there was one issue that friends and associates believed would keep McKenna in office, it was the vexatious national unity file. He campaigned in 1987 on a promise to hold open hearings on the Meech Lake accord because of concerns over lack of protection for women's and minority language rights. While he eventually supported the accord, his early opposition allowed more vociferous opponents such as Newfoundland Premier Clyde Wells the time they needed to kill the deal. Ever since, McKenna has been one of the most passionate advocates of accommodation with Quebec, most recently by helping to spearhead last month's so-called Calgary accord.

But McKenna has clearly concluded that the national unity imbroglio is much bigger than one man, and chose to put his priorities elsewhere. His wife, Julie, spoke candidly with reporters last week about how McKenna's incessant work habits meant that he simply was not there for many of the important events and decisions in the lives of their children, Tobias, 25, Christine, 22, and James, 20. She said she also worried about the toll on his health due to stress and lack of sleep. In typical fashion, perhaps, McKenna told Maclean's that what he called "my rehabilitation" would begin this week with "some really aggressive exercise." As well, he said he would be spending his first day as ex-premier back at his desk, poring over "some continuing economic development files." For a man so obviously addicted to his job, recovery will come one step at a time.

The Pressure Years

Maclean's Atlantic Bureau Chief Brian Bergman spoke to Premier Frank McKenna four days prior to his resignation announcement and again the day after he disclosed his decision to leave. Excerpts:

Maclean's: You are known as a relentless pursuer of jobs. Yet after 10 years, New Brunswick's unemployment rate remains stubbornly high. How frustrating is that?

McKenna: We've always felt like we were on a treadmill. We've created literally tens of thousands of jobs and a very diversified base. But while we do that, we fight our way through a terrible recession; cutbacks federally and provincially bleed off thousands of jobs; and mechanization of the forest industry, which is the centrepiece of our economy, also takes its toll. All of that has really sucked domestic demand. It's been like trying to run uphill with two large leg irons. For every step you take forward, you slide back half a step.

Maclean's: Your critics say you have shown more concern for the fiscal bottom line than for the effect your policies have on people. How do you respond?

McKenna: We don't enter public life to be harmful to people and we don't enter it to become unpopular. We want to do good. But we realized if we didn't have the courage to act, New Brunswickers would go deeper and deeper in the hole and end up having to take the kind of actions Ontario and Quebec are now undertaking. There is no escaping judgment day. And those provinces that have not dealt with their fiscal issues have left horrendous pain for their citizens to endure.

Maclean's: How much blame do you accept for the demise of the Meech Lake accord?

McKenna: Had I helped formulate the accord, I would have ensured that it was more inclusive and that some important constituencies were represented. Also, if I had known that [former Newfoundland premier] Clyde Wells would have emerged and been so dogmatic, so utterly resolute in refusing to compromise, we would have rushed to ratification more quickly. We simply couldn't see on the horizon that someone would enter the political realm who would be, in my view, so irresponsible.

Maclean's: What lessons can be drawn from that experience for the current round of national unity talks?

McKenna: The lessons are dramatic. Number 1, we should not present Canadians with a fait accompli. Second, we should not even try to have the pretension of a complete package. Instead, we should proceed with small steps, and when they are successful move on to the next one. I also know, after 10 years of being in the pressure cooker and often thinking that the fate of the country rested on our shoulders, that this country is strong and resolute and, even without a constitution, this country can and will survive.

Maclean's: What toll has the premier's job taken on your personal life?

McKenna: I just feel this great sense of loss at times that I've missed so many valuable hours with my family. I was looking at a picture of my children about 10 years ago - they were just wee kids. And now they are grown up. My older son recently got married and I was thinking to myself that I've missed so many wonderful moments with him. You can't get those back.

Maclean's October 20, 1997

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