A quick, slightly odd stroll down memory lane:
McKenna muses how he would set Liberals straight: Former N.B. premier sets
himself in role of opposition leader
9 November 2001
OTTAWA – Frank McKenna won’t run for the federal Liberal leadership. He told
me so yesterday in a room at the Chateau Laurier. His biographer Philip Lee
says so. Everybody I asked in Liberal Ottawa this week says so.
If I were Stockwell Day, on the other hand, I’d watch my back.
The wee former New Brunswick premier was in Ottawa this week to do some business —
he’s one of these lawyer-consultant guys who fly around earning pots of
money. He also appeared at the Ottawa launch of Mr. Lee’s biography, Frank,
which comes on the heels of Donald Savoie’s book-length academic study of
Mr. McKenna’s policy legacy.
Mr. McKenna claims some discomfort with both books, but is helping promote
Mr. Lee’s because he wants to help its New Brunswick publisher, Goose Lane
Editions. He gives interviews, protesting every time that he would rather
not be interviewed.
After he asserted at length that he won’t run for the Liberal leadership, I
asked what he thought of the Liberals’ opposition.
He perked up. “I find it unbelievable … that all the traditional forces of
opposition have been so self-destructive. … There is a radical centre in
Canada that is exciting ground to play with. You can be very innovative, you
can be very activist, you can be very fiscally prudent occupying that centre
Well, I’m not going to seriously suggest that you lead an opposition party
… He cut me off.
“Actually, that is a compelling political job in Canada. This whole thing
would interest me if I were of that persuasion. Because that would be a very
interesting job. A turn-around job.”
I asked what would be in Mr. McKenna’s first Commons speech as Opposition
“It would say that this government has been around too long. They’re
arrogant. They’re complacent. They need to be challenged. They need to be
“We believe that Canada and Canadians are not prepared to stay comfortable
with mediocrity. That they want to excel and move. That we’re drifting
inexorably backwards. That we need to be a force on the world stage. That we
need to increase our profile. That we need to be a player in world events.
That we need to have a stronger dollar that’s based on solid fundamentals.
That we need a health care system that recognizes that there are certain
market realities that have to be respected. That we’re not prepared to see
the evaporation of our wealth through incremental declines.
“That our aspirations are to take advantage of our size and our bulk and our
educated work force to become truly the most prosperous nation in the
universe. And to exhort Canadians to be prepared to face some difficult
choices to get to that.”
He paused for a moment, then grimaced. “What the hell was that all about?
… I mean, if I were them giving a partisan speech, that’s what I would
Sure, buddy. Nice knowing you. Mr. McKenna was nervous for the next few
minutes as he pondered the smiting he’d delivered unto his nominal brethren.
But then he let himself be drawn out on the most pressing challenge, fixing
Several times before he retired in 1997, he brainstormed cost-containing
schemes with his fellow Atlantic premiers. Three free visits to your doctor,
for instance, then rising costs for each subsequent visit. Or payment for
less-than-critical care via an income-tax surcharge on patients with the
means to contribute to the cost of their care.
“We toyed with all of those. The Canada Health Act prohibits all of those.
“Why hasn’t the system changed? Again Mr. McKenna was surprisingly, er,
“Over the last three or four years, there’s been too much money to make that
That’s not what the current crop of premiers are saying.
“The government of Canada gave them a big dump of money that was supposed to
be the end of it. Now they’re right back at the trough again. And I don’t
blame them. It’s a far easier way to deal with it, to get more money from
“And for Ottawa, when you have quite a lot of money, it’s far easier to
shovel some out, and to try to provide the opiate of money to the system.”
A good morning’s work, in all. He’d dumped on his Liberal colleagues in
Ottawa and his former colleagues around the premiers’ table. He’d put his
finger on some of the most pressing concerns in government. I think we’re
done here, I said.
He took a deep breath. “Yeah. I don’t think I should talk any more.”