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Paul Martin, along with Frank McKenna, the former New Brunswick premier, was in Fredericton last week to launch a new centre and program at St. Thomas University – the Frank McKenna Centre for Communications and Public Policy.

Yvonne Berg/The Globe and Mail

Frank McKenna and Paul Martin are helping a small university in New Brunswick get a fix on political spin.

"Public policy, ineptly communicated, isn't going to work," said Mr. Martin, the former Liberal prime minister, who is critical of Harper government tactics to shut down debate. "You cannot communicate something that you haven't basically worked very hard on. There has to be substance as well."

Mr. Martin, along with Mr. McKenna, the former New Brunswick premier, was in Fredericton last week to launch a new centre and program at St. Thomas University – the Frank McKenna Centre for Communications and Public Policy. The program is aimed at graduating students who can communicate public policy either from government or the private sector. The four-year degree program, the first of its kind in Canada, begins next fall. It is a bilingual program.

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The former prime minister kicked off the event with a speech about the importance of marrying communications with public policy. "There is no doubt that whether they be omnibus budget bills or whether they be the refusal to debate issues, I actually think that a government that wants to get its view out is better off having the debate publicly," Mr. Martin said, referring to the Harper government's tendency to toss muliple pieces of legislation into its big budget bills. "I think it actually rebounds politically."

Mr. Martin noted how he went on the road a year before delivering his controversial 1995 budget, explaining to Canadians at town halls and in other forums why drastic measures were needed to balance the budget. He and Mr. McKenna referred to the economic situation in Canada in the early to mid-90s as Canada's "fiscal cliff."

In addition to Mr. McKenna and Mr. Martin, former prime minister Brian Mulroney happened to be in the Maritimes last week speaking to university students about leadership. In an interview with The Globe and Mail, Mr. Mulroney also emphasized the importance of communicating with Canadians. During his tenure, there were hearings on Meech Lake and a vote in the Commons on capital punishment, and he fought an election on whether Canada should enter into a free-trade agreement with the United States. Mr. Mulroney won that election – his second majority government – in 1988.

"You have to try to articulate the vision of the government, where it's going and what its priorities are …," he said. A government just can't throw all of its ideas together "holus bolus," he argued

"They have to be explained and defended," he said. But there is a cost to the open debates and communication: "In a country like Canada, if you're going to be the prime minister, you can do really one of two things – you can be popular or you can be a high achiever, but you can't be both."

Communicating public policy has changed dramatically since the two former prime ministers were in office. No one, for example, was tweeting the details of the trade deal or the Liberals' drastic budget.

In fact, rolling out a traditional communications plan doesn't cut it any more because of the ubiquity of social media, Philip Lee, St. Thomas University's director of journalism and communications, said. "The world of instant communications completely changes the playing field for public policy makers," Mr. Lee said. "They have to find a way to engage in this two-way world of communications."

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The university's new program, he said, will focus on trying to "help students understand the connection between communicating public policy and making public policy."

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