The curse of the young Premier

After hearing that 34 year old Rodney MacDonald will be the new Premier of Nova Scotia, my mind wandered back to a classic Al Hogan ‘We Say’ where he praised New Brunswick for electing a string of young, under 40 years old Premiers. Robichaud, Hatfield, McKenna and Lord were all under 40 when elected as Premier of New Brunswick. Hogan suggested in that editorial that New Brunswick benefitted from the youth and vibrancy of young Premiers.

At the time I wrote on these pages that there was no evidence that electing youthful Premiers has benefitted New Brunswick. In fact, compared to most of Canada, New Brunswick has underperformed since the early 1970s. And not just on economic factors. New Brunswick has the least active, most obese and most illiterate population in Canada. We are also the most Internet illiterate having dropped from 7th to 10th for the percentage of households accessing the Internet (from 1999 to 2004).

So, pausing for some reflection on any correlation between youthful Premiers and the decline of New Brunswick, I have come to the conclusion that youth can be a curse. You see, the young think time is on their side. They think they have ‘time’ to get things accomplished. Consider Premier Lord. After six years in office, a poll of New Brunswickers found that 69% of us have no idea what Premier Lord will be known for. Less than 10 percent had an idea of what his ‘legacy’ would be. After six years in office. When confronted with this, the Premier shrugged it off saying that “Robichaud didn’t bring in equal opportunity until his 7th year in office” (this is a highly debatable assertion but I’ll save that for another day).

The problem is that New Brunswick doesn’t have the luxury of time. Young Premiers do. Frank McKenna led the province for 10 years. He then went on to a highly successful career in business. He then took the most coveted ambassadorial post. Now he will undoubtedly spend 10-15 years more doing something impressive. Lord may follow suit. He may spend 8 years in office and then go on to bigger and better things after.

Meanwhile, none of these ‘young’ Premiers developed any strategies to seriously address our problems. Our population is in the first period of sustained decline since Confederation. Premier Lord will be the first premier in the history of New Brunswick to leave with less population than when he arrived. We are now more dependent on Equalization than ever. We have seen out-migration (more moving out than in) for 14 straight years! We are not embracing new economy industries. We are stimulated the limited job creation we have seen through increases in the public service and from the fading boom of the 1990s call centres.

Young Premiers, it seems to me, are very media savvy. They can make great speeches. They can engage people in heady dialog. But when it comes to enacting any bold new initiatives, they plug in the pacifier and say that can wait until I am out of diapers (so to speak).

Here’s a quiz. Name one decision by Premier Lord that could be considered ‘bold’. You can’t include either the toll highway or Lepreau as I mean ‘bold’ here in the sense that he risks a large percentage of his political capital on an idea that could lead to feast or famine.

Me neither.

By his own account, the government has cut spending in all areas except education and health care. There have been no new bold business attraction initiatives (such as Nova Scotia carving out the whole economic development function into a separate agency governed by a board of directors and not politicians). There have been no bold new education initiatives. And health care? Come on. You want bold? Saskatchewan closed 50% of its rural hospitals in a five year period. Lord’s strategy has been to tweak and chip away with no real meaningful reform.

When asked by a journalist about this image of a mediocre and lame duck government, Lord shrugged and said “Robichaud didn’t bring in equal opportunity until his 7th year in office”. This is his mindset.

So for me, I think I will vote next time for the oldest candidate for Premier – hopefully he or she will be 50+ and have 20-25 years experience leading change in a large organization. You see, older people don’t feel they have ‘time on their side’. They realize that life is short. They realize their legacy will be wrapped up in what they accomplish during their time as Premier and not afterwards.

Take John Hamm. An old geezer by any measure. The rate of job creation in Nova Scotia during his time as Premier was double that of New Brunswick’s – double. I suspect when the Census #s come out in 2007 you will see that Nova Scotia has turned a corner and that population will be growing again (unlike NB which will continue to decline). Nova Scotia has an average Internet literacy rate and well above New Brunswick on just about every economic and social statistic.