Thursday, June 28, 2007

Shawn Graham of New Brunswick - Atlantic Premier Profiles

I wrote profiles of the four Atlantic Premiers for publication for the May issue of Atlantic Business Magazine (ABM). One has already left office (Pat Binns of Prince Edward Island) but the other three are still in power: Rodney MacDonald of Nova Scotia, Shawn Graham of New Brunswick and of course Danny Williams of Newfoundland and Labrador. Over the next couple of days I'll post all the profiles.

A companion piece to these profiles is an overview of all four Atlantic premiers previously published in ABM.

Today, Shawn Graham of New Brunswick.


The premier of New Brunswick has demographics on his mind. For the first time since the Great Depression, New Brunswick is experiencing a prolonged population decline. He’s concerned about the economy, since fewer people mean fewer options for employers seeking skilled workers for the jobs they create, challenges for attracting new industries and smaller revenues to his treasury. But most of all, Shawn Graham is worried about the impact this has on the very way of life New Brunswickers treasure.

So he has established a Population Growth Secretariat.

That’s the kind of person Shawn Graham is: he’s not afraid to strike at the root of a problem, to be both innovative and aggressive. He’s also building a coalition of government, business, labour, education and community-based organizations to help.

Graham’s creds for the job are unique. A teacher by profession, he served as the Executive Assistant to his father Alan Graham, Frank McKenna’s Natural Resources and Energy Minister, before succeeding him as MLA for Kent in 1998. He won the leadership of the New Brunswick Liberal Party in 2002 and led it to electoral victory in 2006. Perhaps that had something to do with his bold vision of making New Brunswick a “have” province by 2025.

He is sure of where his province’s strength lies – paradoxically, right where its current weakness is, in its people. He says New Brunswickers have a long history of resourcefulness and ingenuity, and he’s creating a climate that supports them in exercising those qualities to build momentum for population growth. A lynchpin of his strategy is finding ways to help relieve some of the pressure in Alberta’s maxed-out economy: “Rather than exporting our people,” he says, “we want to export our products.”

Graham has his eye on foreign markets as well: he is keen to leverage New Brunswick’s strategic location for export (especially of Atlantic Canada’s abundant energy products) to the United States. An advocate of regional cooperation, he works hard to build on his province’s “long and important relationship” relationship with New England.

He’s working with fellow Atlantic premiers, too, on economies of scale for infrastructure development, especially critical transportation corridors. Nonetheless, Graham emphasizes his province’s unique status as the only bilingual Atlantic province, acknowledging its need for “made-in-New-Brunswick solutions” in areas like education or health care delivery.

In the end, however, he is a strong believer in cooperation: “I’ve always believed you can’t shake hands with a clenched fist…. I will always vigorously defend the interests of New Brunswick but my approach, with the federal government and with others, is to find the common ground, the common goal to work towards.”

Graham also wants to draw on the common strength of New Brunswickers to revitalize public discourse. While committed to electoral reform through fixed election dates, he says there is a bigger issue at play: his government is currently looking at how to engage the people of the province “in an ongoing fashion, not just every four years.” This should be possible, since Graham says his province’s politics are personal and immediate. “I think people feel connected to their elected officials,” he muses. “There’s an accessibility here that I don’t think you necessarily get in larger centres.”

Born in 1968, this young premier still hears the ticking of the clock on what he wants to accomplish as premier: “For me the most surprising thing has been how quickly time passes by which is why I want to make the most of every opportunity and ensure that our government has done everything we could to put our province in the road to self-sufficiency.”

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