History takes its toll

December 11, 2009 10:56 AM

I remember the moment well: the new leader of the PC party was trying to harness public anger against a controversial provincial government contract that, in the view of local residents, amounted to a sell-off of an important public asset. "To say I would cancel the deal - I can't say that," he told reporters. "That would be irresponsible. I don't know what the cost would be."

What happened next transformed New Brunswick politics. And it's a moment that is deeply resonant once again in 2009.

The moment I refer to took place on the evening of Feb. 19, 1998. Bernard Lord, barely four months into his role as PC leader, was in Salisbury to speak at a public meeting about the Liberal government's plan to have a private consortium build, and charge tolls on, a new four-lane highway between Moncton and Fredericton. (A short stretch of existing highway, built earlier with public funds, was to be transferred to the consortium as part of the deal. This was a minor point, but it did feed a perception that public assets were being sold off.)

Lord's reluctance that night to say he'd cancel the deal was the position the PC caucus had agreed upon at a meeting earlier that day. But when Lord told the crowd of local residents in Salisbury that as premier he would "change the tolls," he faced skepticism and demands for specifics. He said he'd renegotiate "parts" of the contract, but that still wasn't enough. When one man shouted, "You haven't answered my question," Lord made a clear promise: "We will take the tolls off." This wasn't literally a tearing up of the contract, but it amounted to the same thing: renegotiating the dollars.

Liberals were gleeful. Lord had just made a catastrophic rookie mistake, in their view: he had committed to a reckless action that would cost taxpayers millions upon millions of dollars. The Liberals, convinced of their own managerial competence and innovative, get-things-done genius, had no doubt the voters would see it the same way. The Tories were toast.

Except, as everyone knows, it didn't turn out that way. Lord's promise made him a symbol of change after 11 years of Liberal government, and he swept to power with a huge majority in June 1999.

Yes, the promise did cost taxpayers: the highway debt that was to have been paid off by toll revenue was added to the public debt. But the Liberals should think twice if they believe that argument works for them now. ("I remember one other time the Tories ripped up a contract," Energy Minister Jack Keir said Thursday. "It was the toll highway and New Brunswickers are still paying for that.")

Yes, the Liberals had been in office 11 years then and fatigue was already setting in. The same dynamic may not apply now, with Shawn Graham in his first term as premier.

Still, what the toll-highway story demonstrates is that when a small group of government insiders are so confident they've negotiated a great agreement, and they proclaim their certainty that New Brunswickers will eventually get it, they can be wrong. Spectacularly so.

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