He’s youthful, handsome and as sharp as a tack. So why, after only one year in office, does Canada’s youngest premier now earn public approval ratings that would have made Richard Nixon weep into his morning bowl of Wheaties?
It’s been a year since 32-year-old Brian Gallant rode into power on a wave of support, upending the oneterm Progressive Conservative premier David Alward. In that brief time, the young Liberal leader has watched his personal approval ratings in the province plummet from somewhere north of 40 per cent to somewhere south of 25. In fact, you’d be hardpressed to find an interest group he hasn’t managed to aggravate over the past 12 months.
Civil servants are unhappy with some of his cost-cutting measures. Teachers and health-care providers are worried about his commitment to kids and an aging population. Senior citizens are still smarting from his effort (temporarily aborted, after much public outcry) to factor their personal assets into the cost of nursing home residence. And the business community remains bemused by his decision to maintain a moratorium on the development of shale gas.
Then, there are the structural challenges he inherited from his Tory predecessors — starting with a $400-million annual deficit, a $12-billion long-term debt, a stubbornly high unemployment rate of 11 per cent, and virtually non-existent GDP growth.
Indeed, not long ago, the Conference Board of Canada had this to say about the general state of the provincial economy: “New Brunswick ranks last among the provinces, second-to-last overall, and worse than the bottomranked peer country on two indicators, scoring ‘D-’ grades for income per capita and outward greenfield Foreign Direct Investment performance.” It scored only slightly higher ‘C’ grades on the unemployment rate, employment growth, GDP growth, and labour productivity growth.
The province’s demographic woes are just as troubling.
“Look around you,” entreats Donald Savoie, an expert in public administration and regional economic development, based at Université de Moncton. “(When) you have an aging population and you can’t attract new Canadians, what it means is that economic growth is not going to be there. You don’t grow an economy with, or for, retired people. Plus, it brings its own set of challenges, such as health care and social services. There are some pretty tough decisions. Schools will have to close. Some rationalization and restructuring will have to be done. It cannot be sustained. We can’t look to Ottawa. It’s like we are waiting for Bill Gates to come by and move Microsoft from Seattle to New Brunswick. It’s not going to happen. We have to deal with the hand that’s given to us, and the hand that’s given to us is pretty meagre.”
It is and Gallant knows this. Still, he remains almost defiantly cheerful in the face of his adversities. “When it comes to the challenges, I think I have two ways of saying it. As a province it’s about getting our finances and our economy in order, going forward. Personally, it’s about communications — getting the message out, explaining to people what we’re doing and why we are doing it.”
As for public opinion polls — specifically, his precipitous drop in popularity these past few months — he’s equally sanguine: “One of the things I learned early on is that you don’t want to let that kind of thing affect you. If you go up with the highs and down with the lows, it’s going to be an emotional roller coaster. From a governing point of view, it’s clear that we face a lot of tough challenges. That’s the priority.”
That is, of course, the sort of implacable, steady and friendly resolve New Brunswickers found most attractive about the man (apart from, perhaps, his GQ-model good looks) a year ago. Even now, almost everyone in this province — even his political foes — acknowledge that he is a genuinely fine fellow.
Born Brian Alexander Gallant in the tiny New Brunswick town of Shediac Bridge, the early life of the future premier of Canada’s thirdsmallest province reads like a chapter ripped straight out of the pages of a Horatio Alger novel: Poor boy from humble beginnings puts his shoulder to the wheel and makes good.
One of three children born to Pierre and Marilyn (nee Scholten), Gallant says his taste for politics developed early. “When I was 11, I sort of fell into student politics.”
As he told a Global News interviewer following his election win, “I actually became vice president of my Grade 5 class simply because nobody wanted the job. I loved it. You listen to people, you try and figure out solutions to problems, you try to lead people, you try to come up with innovative ideas to do things better.”
According to Gallant’s high-school vice principal, Luc Michaud, that’s just about right: “When he was student council president, he even went into the classrooms of younger grades and talked about issues like bullying. I’ve had other students do that, but he did it on his own volition. He took it upon himself as a Grade 12 student to talk to the Grade 9 students.”
“I once told him, ‘You know, I see in you all the qualities of leadership that would make a premier of New Brunswick.’ He’s gone into this job of premier with his eyes wide open. His purpose is to leave New Brunswick in better shape than he found it. I appreciate even more than I had just how tough his job must be. He’s the right man for the job.”
Of course, Gallant didn’t know this when he graduated from high school. His immediate objective was to obtain a university education. He started and operated two small businesses to pay his way through college. He received a Bachelor in Business Administration with a concentration in finance and a Bachelor of Law degree from the Université de Moncton. He subsequently received a Master’s in Law degree from McGill University. Professionally, he pursued a career with the firm Stewart McKelvey in the areas of corporate and commercial law, eventually joining the Veritas Law firm in Dieppe as a partner.
Ultimately, though, the lure of politics — and what it could do for people in the hands of a dedicated elected official — proved irresistible. In 2006, at the ridiculously tender age of 24, he ran against New Brunswick’s Tory premier at the time, Bernard Lord. He failed to unseat the incumbent, but he has never regretted the challenge he launched, telling Global News last year, “I thought it would be a great way to learn and a great way to fully understand our system and how it works — and what are the good things? And what are some of the tougher things? So I think I accomplished most of those.”
In 2013, he took another crack at breaking into the public square, this time winning a by-election in Kent, becoming leader of the Official Opposition in late April of that year and setting his sights firmly on the premier’s office.
Gallant’s campaign strategy was, by turns, cunning and alluring to New Brunswickers. He knew that the provincial electorate had grown weary and angry with David Alward’s Tories over the previous four years. It was dissatisfied with that government’s constant trimming around the edges of the public service with no appreciable improvement in the public accounts. Worse, perhaps, was the horror a goodly number of voters felt at the Progressive Conservatives’ support for shale gas development in the province — an industry that depended on the controversial practice of hydraulic fracturing, which involves blowing water mixed with chemicals at high pressure into sedimentary rock to release and extract natural gas. Wouldn’t that, they fretted, poison supplies of potable water?
Gallant made good use of all concerns, promising to carefully review the way government bureaucrats spend money while banging the drum for economic diversification, job creation, and long-term infrastructure development through a $900-million spend on roads, highways, bridges, sewer systems, and the like. In the end, he said, a Liberal government would create 5,000 new jobs. And there were other goodies: Tax hikes on the onepercenters and on businesses; home renovation grants to old folks, whose numbers in the province were rising; and 6,000 new, publicly-subsidized daycare spots.
His coup de grâce, though, was inarguably his position on shale gas development. He argued persuasively that good, credible information about the impact of hydraulic fracturing was, to say the least, thin. He promised to bar the industry, which had been exploring and conducting minor production operations for at least a decade, from proceeding until such time as he was certain that no harm from it would come to New Brunswick communities and families.
The young political hopeful stood in sharp contrast to the beleaguered, 50-something David Alward: Merry, energetic, bright-eyed and genuinely engaged with public opinion.
He still is. “Jobs and economic growth are what we are focused on as our number one priority,” he says today. “Diversity is also important. What I think we need to do as a province is not put all our eggs in one basket or even two baskets. We really need to have many efforts… Helping small businesses, we are going to ensure that we help develop natural resources in a responsible way. We want to invest in our infrastructure. That will help us be more competitive. We also want to invest in innovation and start-ups in New Brunswick. All of these things are collectively important. As a province we will do all of these things.”
His message hasn’t changed measurably over the past year. Then, again, neither has the shape of the economy nor the condition of the public accounts, which haven’t responded appreciably to Gallant’s election platform. That suggests that either it’s too soon to hold the young premier’s feet to the fire or, in the opinion of at least one determined critic, he simply doesn’t know what he is doing.
New Brunswick’s Opposition Leader, Bruce Fitch, has never minced his words. And the Tory MLA is as clear as a bell today: “Under the Gallant government, natural resources projects have been delayed or stalled.”
He’s especially irked by his Liberal opponent’s position on shale gas: “The Gallant government came in with a moratorium on shale gas. What did that cause? One company, Corridor Resources, has laid off three full-time employees. Another, SWN Resources, has suspended its operations in the province. The fact is, it’s virtually impossible to invest in a company when a moratorium hovers over it. This also affects the potash industry in New Brunswick, which needs (comparatively inexpensive) shale gas to make any of its expansion plans viable and economic.”
Regarding the broader provincial economy, Fitch notes, “After this government promised to create 5,000 jobs, the province is down 2,600. Meanwhile, 8,600 people have left New Brunswick. We need these people.”
He also decries what he detects is a troubling track record in the premier’s dealings with his civil service and even members of his own staff. Having essentially continued Alward’s program of cost constraints in the provincial bureaucracy, Gallant, he says, has presided over “the firing of a substantial number of deputy ministers since he took office; and he’s on about his third chief of staff.”
Then there’s the recent nursing-home debacle, which raised its hoary head last fall, when the Gallant government announced that it would, henceforth, move to an asset-based means test, from an income-based model, for seniors’ care. That meant that those seeking elder residence in provincially-subsidized facilities would have to factor in their entire net worth (not just their income) to determine how low or high their monthly nursing-home costs would be. After a firestorm of public outrage, the government backed away from the plan, agreeing to “reset” the policy.
Others, however, are not so quick to draw their six guns. Donald Savoie, for one, thinks that public expectations in this province are failing to adjust to the grim realities they simply refuse to face.
“What Brian Gallant is confronting is bigger than any premier,” he says. “It would take (former New Brunswick premiers) Frank McKenna and Richard Hatfield, combined, to meet the challenge. That’s the kind of crisis we are confronting in New Brunswick. I don’t think people have come to terms with it… We’ve talked about it. We’ve written some op-eds about it. But we are confronting an extremely serious challenge the likes of which we’d have to go back to the 1940s, the 1930s, to witness.”
He adds: “Bruce Fitch can say what he wants, but this is beyond the scope of Brian Gallant, or in fact, anyone… Look, several months ago the New Brunswick Medical Association said we need more resources, we need more doctors, we need better equipment. Now, the Medical Association is full of welleducated people. They know full well that we have a $12-billion debt and $400-million deficit. If you are going to advance that kind of logic, you have to ask where are you going to cut and what taxes are you going to increase? It’s too easy to dump on the premier; it’s too easy to dump on the provincial government.”
For his part, Gallant bears nothing of the countenance of a doomed man. He speaks enthusiastically, even compassionately, about the province’s opportunities and hopes. It starts, for him, with kids. “The thing that I would probably be happiest about over the past year is that this government has invested the most in education in the history of the province,” he says.
“To me, our focus in the province has to be about growing the economy and creating jobs. And we also want to ensure that New Brunswick is a great place to live, work and play. Obviously you need many efforts and investments to make that a reality, but I think it’s pretty clear that education is the one area that gives you those things. I am a huge proponent of the role that education can play in developing our economy, and, of course, what it does for every individual in giving them opportunities in our province. So I am very happy, despite the fact that we face many challenges both fiscally and economically, that as a government we were able to prioritize education to the extent that we did, increasing the budget by $33 million, which represents an increase of over 3.1 per cent.”
That may be a drop in the bucket. It may be too little too late. It may, in the end, be false hope, given the scope of the other challenges he faces as Canada’s youngest premier. But, regardless of political mishaps and public opinion after one year in office, he’s still smiling.