Taking off the gloves four years later

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Say what you will about Shawn Graham. But the man doesn’t back down from a fight, even when he’s almost certain to lose.

The former Liberal premier of New Brunswick was back in the news last week, and in a contemplative mood, sitting down for an interview with The Daily Gleaner’s Michael Staples.

Reflecting on the signature debacle of his one term in office – the failed bid to sell NB Power to Hydro-Quebec for a cool $4 billion in 2010 – he said: “That was one of my biggest regrets as premier that we weren’t able to get that deal done for the benefit of future generations.”

Does he still think it was the right thing to attempt, even though a goodly number of his fellow citizens did at one point want to roast him on a spit?

“We would not have tried as hard as we did and spent the political capital if we didn’t think it was the right direction for the province to move and the utility to move,” he said.

Does he blame the public for failing to appreciate the obvious benefits of such a move?

“You never want to to shock the public and, unfortunately, we didn’t have the benefit of time to educate the public on the significant challenges facing the utility,” he said. “People say it may have been the best possible deal but the communications was terrible. I recognized that, but there were challenges on how we could inform the public.”

In retrospect, though, I wonder if that’s strictly accurate.

Since Mr. Graham’s time away from public life, the province has welcomed into –and booted out of – office the Progressive Conservative government of David Alward, another one-term wonder.

The Tory regime was, for all appearances, dramatically different that its predecessor Grits in the way it handled the public.

Where the Graham government was perceived to be guarded, uncommunicative and even secretive, the Alward team was deliberately consultative, inclusive and even  chatty. And yet both suffered nearly identical fates at the hands of unmoved and unconvinced electorates.

Indeed, if we were to put Messrs. Alward and Graham in a room together, with no fear of being quoted before the great unwashed, and ask each of them to be completely honest, what are the chances that these two gentlemen might actually agree?

The single, biggest problem New Brunswick faces, they might say, is not the condition of its power company (which is actually pretty good these days).

It’s not the looming cost of rebuilding (or retiring) the Mactaquac dam.

It’s not public pensions overuns, illiteracy, innumeracy, childhood obesity, crime, mental illness,drug addiction, poverty, income inequality, or permanent, structural unemployment.

It’s not the $300-500-million annual deficit, nor is it the $12-billion long-term debt.

No, the biggest problem New Brunswick faces, the former premiers might concur in a moment of fearless candor, is that the province is rapidly becoming ungovernable.

Doing the unpopular thing (like attempting to sell the power company under cover of darkness) doesn’t seem to make any greater difference to the public’s generally low opinion of politicians and their games than doing the generally appealing thing (like refusing to raise the HST by a measly percentage point) – even though both moves, under the proper circumstances, could make eminent, good sense.

Frankly, far too many of us in this province find it impossible to conceive of a day when the economic engines and commercial levers freeze for good. It;s never happened before, We’ve always managed to pull through, demanding and pretty much getting everything we’ve asked our politicians to deliver.

And on those occasions when we don’t get what we want, we through the bums on the street, a move, if repeated often enough, tends to produce a political class schooled in the twin arts of supplication and pandering.

Neither, I hasten to add, are Messrs. Graham’s and Alward’s particular failures as politicians.

Still, it would useful to our long-term prospects if we could learn how to keep our leaders around long enough that they might do the right thing in the right way for change – even if the right thing isn’t immediately or especially popular.

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