Certainly, there was nothing average about his subsequent successes at the ballot box: Three majority wins between 1987 and 1995, the first of which was a clean sweep of every seat in the Legislative Assembly, only the second such achievement for a provincial political party in Canadian history.
In reality, McKenna’s terms of office were marked by the sort of policy coherence that’s seen in government only rarely these days. He made job creation his number one priority, offering tax breaks to companies both large and small. He worked directly (some say, meddled) with the private sector to get it the skills and resources it needed to prevail during tough times. He travelled the country to “sell” New Brunswick to corporations looking to establish satellite operations. He even installed a toll-free line (1-800-MCKENNA) in his office and invited business interests across North America to give him a call if they wanted to know more about his splendid corner of the world.
By and large, the measures worked. The provincial economy became more diversified, more productive, more innovative. Government finances improved. Most importantly, though, was a palpable shift for the better in people’s attitudes about themselves and their communities. It was as if McKenna had grabbed the zeitgeist, shook it by the neck, and ordered it to cheer up. He had seen the possibilities lurking beneath the collective conscious and tapped them.
Of course, not everything he did earned applause. “It’s hard to compare eras,” he says. “It’s like comparing hockey players from different eras. But the circumstances we faced then were pretty acute. We saw a series of very deep federal cuts to all of the provinces. At the same time, we had an unemployment rate that was in the middle-teens, much higher than it is today. We had an unfunded pension fund, which we inherited, at $1.6 billion, and a large pension deficit at the Workman’s Compensation Board. So, in many ways, the circumstances then were just as dire as they are today. I would say, perhaps, they were more dire.”
At times, he says, the medicine was bitter, indeed: “From totally restructuring health care, reducing bed counts dramatically, closing institutions to reducing the size of government with significant layoffs . . . We had frozen salaries for a period of at least two years. We had people in the streets, pretty much steadily, in protest.”
But his larger point is that those who find themselves in a position to make a difference in people’s lives have a duty to speak up and get busy, regardless of any personal or professional risks. It’s a principle he carried over into his one-year term (2005-2006) as Canada’s Ambassador to the United States, when he routinely urged his fellow citizens to be more sympathetic to their American “cousins”, even as he blasted the administration of President George W. Bush, in a speech near the end of his tenure to a Toronto business audience, for being “in large measure dysfunctional”.
As for New Brunswick’s current “dysfunction”, McKenna is equally plainspoken: “This isn’t just a problem of leadership in government. It’s also a problem of followership. Our citizens have to understand the full depth and breadth of the dilemma that we are facing, and they have to be prepared to face up to some inconvenient truths. It means that they have to become less reliant on government and more entrepreneurial. It means that they have to take responsibility for their own futures.”
It means they have to start paying attention to the signs of the times and recognize that the time for action is now.
McKenna places his palms squarely on the table. He’s still waiting to hear from Alward about his proposal to go public with his opinions on one of the most controversial industrial opportunities in New Brunswick’s recent history. But as the shadows of the late afternoon begin to lengthen, he sees no point in appearing coy. “The way I look at it,” he says, “the real win comes when we take our indigenous shale gas in the province and hook it into the Canaport liquified natural gas (LNG) facility in Saint John.”
His voice rises as his enthusiasm peaks. “We have in situ now, calculated by Corridor Resources Inc., 67 trillion cubic feet of gas. That’s bigger than western Canada. It’s a huge deposit! If 10 per cent is exploitable, that’s enough to create a revenue source for New Brunswick for decades to come. All in, it would result in about $15-20 billion in investment and 150,000 person years of work. And for governments, it would result in between $7-9 billion worth of royalties and taxes.”
In other words, he says, New Brunswick’s shale reserves could change the conversation about the province’s anemic economy forever. They could transform the region into a jurisdiction whose wealth rivals that of Alberta, Saskatchewan, Pennsylvania or North Dakota.
“What we need to understand is that just by the roll of the dice, we have landed in exactly the best position on the board at this moment in time,” he says. “We have a Canaport facility with massive storage and with a jetty, getting right into deep water. We have a port that’s ice free and has the capacity to accommodate the biggest vessels in the world. The West Coast can’t do that.”
More than this, he says, if New Brunswick manages to spearhead the construction of an oil pipeline from Quebec, carrying Alberta bitumen into Saint John, the combination (with native shale gas development) would be unbeatable: “We have the only LNG (sea) terminal in Canada, and it’s currently borderline economic. It’s set up to receive imported product. But the world has changed under our feet. Gas in Canada now is about $3.50 per thousand cubic feet (mcf). Gas in Europe is about $11 mcf. In Asia, it’s about $15. Fifteen proposals exist now in Canada to reverse LNG facilities for exporting. The reversal of that plant in Saint John would create an investment of between $2.5-10 billion, creating 900 jobs per unit, and four units could go there . . . And so, when you put it all together, you can see what we’re looking at.”
It is, perhaps, easier for McKenna than most to apprehend the outline of the big picture. Though he and his wife Julie summer in Cap-Pele, New Brunswick, he’s ensconced in Toronto. And when he’s not, he’s travelling an average of 175,000 miles a year representing TD’s interests all over the world, pressing the f lesh with renowned figures such as former U.S. President Bill Clinton, whom he considers a personal friend, and Wayne Gretzky. Still, though he may no longer be as close to his home province as he once was, he is never very far. “Businesses from New Brunswick contact me every week,” he says. “They are looking for introductions or just wanting to drop in. I am constantly in touch with New Brunswick businesses and individuals.”
That fact, perhaps, gives him the right to speak forthrightly. In any case, he doesn’t resist the temptation. He knows just how contentious an issue shale gas development has become in the province, where a vocal segment of the population worries about the potentially deleterious environmental effects of the technology.
“First of all, there are some people who are for this and, to them, it doesn’t matter what the damage or what the opportunities are,” he says. “I would park them. Then there are some people who are just dead against it and it doesn’t matter what you say. And you park them.”
He thinks the Alward government should focus on the majority—in whose company he counts himself—who believe that shale gas can be developed both profitably and responsibly. The key is effective communications, a discipline he knows all too well both from experience and bemused observation.
“We witnessed three or four years ago what happened when the public turned against a very major initiative,” he says. “That was the sale of NB Power (to Hydro-Quebec). Had that gone through, it would have resulted in a total transfer of risk, a lowering of the provincial debt, a lowering of power rates in New Brunswick and a greening of our power base. It would have changed the province’s balance sheet overnight. It would have made New Brunswick industry competitive overnight. It would have been an extraordinary asset. But it was poorly presented.”
To prevent a repeat performance over shale gas, he says, opinion leaders in the province must stand up and be counted: Teachers, doctors, nurses, educators; anyone who has skin in the game of preserving and enhancing New Brunswick’s quality of life. And that means just about everyone, including, presumably, McKenna himself.
Although he doesn’t say it, and might never admit it, the man whom one wag once described as the “tiny, perfect premier at the centre of the universe that is Canada’s picture province” is right in his element urging, nudging, canoodling change from the political wings. When he left the premiership, voluntarily, in 1997, he declared that 10 years was enough time in office for any man or woman and vowed never to return. He hasn’t changed his mind.
“Let me tell you, I have had my arm twisted now five different times about running nationally,” he laughs. “You know, if my life was barren, I guess the thought would be more interesting. But, I find that my life is just rich with opportunity—more than I have time for. On the philanthropic side, I’ve been working in Haiti and Africa. For business, I just got back from the Middle East, where I stopped in to Abu Dhabi, Qatar and Kuwait. I’ve just been asked to go over to Beijing, Singapore, Hong Kong and Seoul in March.”
And then there’s his beloved New Brunswick.
“I find I can just do so many more things now,” he says. “I can even help the government of the day in any way that I can, supporting its initiatives, opening doors.”
And sensing, with the timing of a Rolex, exactly where he is in the cosmos known as Frank McKenna.