New Brunswick voters offered a choice between contrasting leaders, policies
By Brett Bundale, THE CANADIAN PRESS
Published Thursday, August 23, 2018 11:29AM ADT
Last Updated Thursday, August 23, 2018 7:03PM ADT
They are polar opposites on politics and personalities -- and nearly three decades apart in age.
Yet polls suggest New Brunswickers haven't yet chosen between Liberal Brian Gallant and Progressive Conservative Blaine Higgs, who have 32 days to campaign before the polls open Sept. 24.
After weeks of spending announcements and political positioning, the election campaign officially began Thursday.
For the first time in nearly a decade, the New Brunswick election isn't defined by a single referendum-style issue at the outset. Without a controversial topic galvanizing the electorate -- like shale gas development or the sale of a public utility -- pundits say voters are largely left with a choice between two leaders.
There's the boyish-looking incumbent, a big spender who stands up for gender equality and social justice, observers say.
Then there's the retired Irving executive, a former finance minister who exudes experience and budgetary restraint.
"Gallant, we have to say it, he's handsome, he looks good, he's charming and he's young," says Gabriel Arsenault, a political science professor at the Universite de Moncton.
"He's more left wing ... he paints himself as more environmentally conscious and concerned with social justice," he says, pointing to the Liberal government's ban on hydraulic fracturing or recent investments in childcare and free university tuition for students from low-income families.
The 64-year-old Tory leader, meanwhile, is portrayed as an antidote to the 36-year-old leader of the Grits, pundits say.
"Higgs is painting himself as fiscally responsible ... the more experienced and perhaps wiser, more knowledgeable choice," Arsenault says.
Yet despite their differences, polls suggest the two leaders are in a tight race.
Gallant appears to hold a narrow lead -- although a Corporate Research Associates poll released Thursday suggests the Liberal advantage is in the double digits. Still, most polling data and provincial pundits suggest it's a toss up whether voters will hand Gallant a second mandate or defeat a third one-term premier in a row.
The polling numbers underscore the importance of the five-week election campaign to securing a victory.
"It is unclear what the mood is," says Jamie Gillies, political scientist professor at St. Thomas University in Fredericton. "Perhaps the Liberal government has enough support to survive and be reelected."
Yet with two consecutive one-term governments prior to 2014, "the campaign dynamics will play a key role over the next few weeks," he says.
In the past, the battle for the New Brunswick legislature has often been waged over a single issue.
In 2010, widespread anger over the proposed sale of NB Power to Hydro-Quebec lead to the ousting of then-Premier Shawn Graham after one term.
Then in 2014, the government of David Alward was defeated over opposition to shale gas development.
"Unlike the last two elections, there is no single issue dominating the provincial political landscape," Gillies says.
Still, the Gallant government has made some blunders over the last four years that could influence the election, observers say.
The Liberal government faced public outcry for failing to act on concerns that leaking sewage was potentially causing fecal contamination in the water at Parlee Beach Provincial Park, one of the most popular beaches on the East Coast.
Gallant also came under fire over a property-tax assessment scandal when a new digital assessment system unfairly inflated property tax bills for thousands of homeowners.
More recently, the Liberal government said it would uphold controversial Crown land timber allocations given to New Brunswick's forestry companies by the previous Tory government.
Political scientist Mario Levesque says Gallant's perceived lack of accountability and transparency could be an issue on the campaign trail.
The Mount Allison University professor says Gallant has a track record of denying a problem and obfuscating rather than "coming clean right off the bat."
"I don't think Gallant has earned a second term, but I think he'll get it by default because (voters) don't like the opponents," Levesque says.
"We're in a huge leadership vacuum. If you think of the Robichaud days or the McKenna days or even the first few years of the Hatfield days -- I mean there's leadership."
Another side issue that is likely to play out in the election is the split along linguistic lines.
Historical voting patterns in New Brunswick have often seen francophone areas favour Liberal candidates while anglophone areas lean toward the Progressive Conservatives.
Roger Ouellette, a political science professor at the Universite de Moncton, says it remains to be seen whether Gallant will play the "linguistic card."
He also says younger voters are more likely to vote for Gallant and the Liberals, while older voters appear to lean towards Higgs and the Conservatives.
But voters have other choices, with the Green Party, the NDP and the People's Alliance of New Brunswick all fielding candidates.
The Green Party broke through in 2014, electing David Coon in Fredericton South. And Kris Austin, leader of the People's Alliance, lost by fewer than 30 votes during the last election and is running again.
Although it's unlikely a third party could threaten the established order, Gillies explains that it could "affect the balance of power if the election is razor thin."
It's also possible a defining issue could yet come to the fore.
J.P. Lewis, a political scientist at the University of New Brunswick in Saint John, says the Tories could try to pin the failure of the Energy East pipeline on Gallant.
Also, in a province with the lowest median income in Canada, he says Higgs could be portrayed as a steady hand with financial acumen.
"They could try to make his running in the election an altruistic case," Lewis says. "Higgs doesn't need to do this, he could be comfortably retired. The party could try to show him as in it for you, not for himself."
Levesque says if Gallant starts to fall behind, he has a potential "ace in the hole."
"If polls start going south for Gallant, expect to see his wife on the trail with him and photo ops all over the place," he says.
"Everyone loves a young, fresh family."