Lord's First 200 Days

His absence was, in reality, due to a bout of flu. But many nights, Lord's tan minivan is the last vehicle in the parking lot behind the government buildings. His heavy workload has even reduced the premier to working out at home, instead of his usual fitness regimen of ball hockey and racquetball.

Lord, Bernard
Premier of New Brunswick Bernard Lord (couresty Maclean's/photo by Peter Bregg).

Lord's First 200 Days

 It could have been worse. Bernard Lord could have given in to his youthful exuberance and ignored the advice around the policy table during last spring's New Brunswick election campaign. The provincial Conservative leader originally wanted his party's platform to include a vow to implement a grab bag of election promises within 100 days of taking office, in the unlikely event the Tories defeated the ruling Liberals. Instead, Lord listened to the voices of reason and agreed to extend the deadline for change to 200 days. Good thing, too. His party scored a stunning upset, taking 44 of 55 seats last June. And meeting even that scaled-back schedule pushed him to the brink: after Lord missed a few days of work in October, a Toronto newspaper speculated that the strain had given him a nervous breakdown.

His absence was, in reality, due to a bout of flu. But many nights, Lord's tan minivan is the last vehicle in the parking lot behind the government buildings. His heavy workload has even reduced the premier to working out at home, instead of his usual fitness regimen of ball hockey and racquetball. Last week, though, all that effort paid off - kind of. When time ran out on Jan. 6 - day 200 - Lord had crossed 19 of his 20 campaign promises off his list. The last was the most bedevilling: taking the tolls off a new stretch of four-lane highway between Fredericton and Moncton. The best he could do by deadline time was an agreement-in-principle with the road construction company operating the toll booths - but no deal with the lenders who financed the bonds for the project.

No matter, said Lord, 34, who shrugged off a mid-campaign vow to resign if he didn't live up to all his promises. "The toll deal is more complicated than we thought," he told Maclean's. "But I think the people of New Brunswick will forgive us. We can put our record of keeping our commitments up against any government's and feel proud of what we've achieved." Even if the real battles are just beginning for his green but hardworking government.

The first 200 days were just a warm-up as Lord made good on pledges designed to jump-start his administration. Among them: putting $1 million into a new fund for teaching supplies; creating 300 new nursing jobs; hiring 100 new teaching assistants; raising the minimum wage by 25 cents to $5.75 per hour; and beginning a review of more than 200 government agencies, boards and commissions and 800 government programs. Opposition politicians claimed that some of the initiatives, such as establishing a new policy of not separating couples into different nursing homes, were window dressing, and they gave Lord a failing grade. But New Brunswickers appear to appreciate the symbolism of a government and premier willing to be held accountable for their campaign commitments.

In fact, a poll released in December by Halifax-based Corporate Research Associates put the government's approval rating at 70 per cent. Lord's personal popularity stood at 49 per cent, miles ahead of the 14 per cent given to Opposition leader Camille Thériault, who took over from longtime Liberal premier Frank McKenna in 1998 and spent a mere year in office before Lord trounced him in the June 7 provincial election. "People seem to have taken to him," says Don Desserud, a political science professor at the University of New Brunswick. "They think he has done what he promised. It's nice to see a government do something, even if most of it is fluff."

The 200 Days of Change Action Plan appears to have been a winner in other ways as well. Analysts say the party's pre-set agenda provided safe, on-the-job training for a government in which only two of the 44 members had ever sat on the government benches in the legislature (the Liberals, under Thériault and McKenna, held power for 12 years, totally sweeping the opposition out of the legislature during McKenna's first term). Lord said last week that he also wanted to send out a clear message that his government was "about change and commitment." The one drawback: a lingering perception that the Tories may have been simply stalling for time - and actually lack a larger vision beyond the disparate collection of short-term campaign promises. As Elizabeth Weir, the sole New Democrat in the New Brunswick legislature puts it: "I want to know what this government is really about and what they intend to do for the next 2 ½ years."

Lord promises quick answers. With the first 200 days out of the way, he intends to swiftly move onto the next phase of his game plan - a mixture of cutbacks, structural reforms and targeted spending, designed to reform the province. The provincial budget, he says, slated for late February or early March, will include the first personal-tax cut in New Brunswick history. Although he vows no hospitals will be closed, Lord also intends to restructure the provincial health-care system to make it "more patient-focused and community-based." Guidance, in that case, will come from the Premier's Health Quality Council, formed last week to fulfill campaign promise number 19, and which reports directly to Lord.

Even more likely to solidify his credentials as a reformer is Lord's goal of overhauling the entire provincial government. A team of high-level bureaucrats and cabinet ministers has already begun the mammoth review process to determine which government bodies will be chopped. "Governments cannot do everything, nor should they," Lord stresses. "The McKenna Liberals did make severe cuts - what they failed to do was eliminate things outright."

Talk like that makes public sector unions blanch. But Lord argues he has no choice. Last month, the province's auditor general revealed that New Brunswick ran a deficit of $164.3-million in the 1998-1999 fiscal year, rather than a surplus of $18.5 million as Thériault's Liberals had projected while in office. If that course continues, the Tories say, the deficit will top $400 million by 2004, further swelling the $9.7-billion provincial debt. Chances of making up the shortfall with tax revenue seem slim: the province's 10.3-per-cent unemployment rate is already sharply above the national figure of 6.9 per cent. And almost all forecasters predict New Brunswick's economy - which grew by only 2.3 per cent in 1998, compared to a national growth rate of 3.1 per cent, will lag behind most other provinces in the foreseeable future.

The tough choices ahead may mean Lord's honeymoon with the public will soon be over. So far, though, with the public, media and political opposition focused on the 200 days of change, there have been few miscues. Lord has taken it on the chin for the Tories' inability to extricate the province from the highway toll deal. But his government has also won praise for some initiatives, such as trying to reduce outright partisanship in New Brunswick politics: Lord has banned politically motivated government advertising, cut 32 government spin doctors, and ordered his troops not to respond to barbs from the 10 Liberals and one NDP member who sit on the opposition benches.

For all that, the earnest young premier, more than anyone, knows that hard work and good intentions are not going to be enough to solve New Brunswick's problems. "The people of this province do not expect us to perform miracles," he says. "What they want are real commitments and changes that will last." That means that in its second act, the government needs to prove it can deliver more than quick fixes. Otherwise, the bright promise of the first 200 days will quickly become just a memory.

Maclean's January 17, 2000