Keir faces tough re-election battle
Liberal energy minister faces strong challenge from Tories, People's Alliance
Last Updated: Tuesday, August 31, 2010 | 4:22 AM ET
Liberal Jack Keir is facing a tough re-election battle in his southern riding of Fundy-River Valley. (CBC)Jack Keir would have a difficult time holding the southern riding of Fundy-River Valley in any election, but after one term in the legislature the Liberal cabinet minister is battling many forces, many not of his own making.
Keir has spent the last four years as Premier Shawn Graham's minister of energy, a position that carries a high profile.
Keir ran in 2006 partly out of a sense of frustration that then-premier Bernard Lord's Progressive Conservative government had ignored the Saint John area, the province's industrial core.
There was positive news early in the Liberal mandate, of a growing energy hub in the Saint John area and optimism over possible jobs. But soon came an avalanche of bad news, as the global downturn curbed that economic enthusiasm.
Making matters worse for the energy minister, he became the face of the government's botched plan to sell NB Power to Hydro-Québec.
With the power deal now dead and the Liberals leading in the latest public opinion poll, though by only a bare margin, Keir is hoping he can resurrect his political fortunes.
"There's no question that in January folks were engaged in that Hydro-Québec deal," he said. "And when I went into Tim Hortons in January, they always said hello, but they didn't have me sit down and have a coffee and talk about it. Now I'm going back into Tim Hortons and they're not only saying hello, they're having me sit down and have a chat with them."
The Tories are attempting to capitalize on any vulnerability that Keir may have by fielding Jim Parrott, a retired heart surgeon, as their local candidate.
'If you're alive, you're going to make mistakes. And I'm not saying he's perfect, but he's done well.'— Baker Glen Cosman
A group of teachers' aides, who are trying to negotiate a contract with the government, are not as keen on Keir.
"He's out of touch," said Lisa Bolton.
"He's so busy hobnobbing with the people who want to sell NB Power and getting [to know] all the power people, he's not representing those of us who really do need the help."
Meanwhile, down the street from Keir's constituency office is a bakery where owner Glen Cosman said he's inclined to give the Liberal MLA another shot.
"Hey, show me a man that makes no mistakes, and I'd like to see him," Cosman said. "If you're alive, you're going to make mistakes. And I'm not saying he's perfect, but he's done well."
Fundy-River Valley has traditionally been a Tory stronghold. Keir was elected in 2006 by a meagre margin of 206 votes. That compared with solid victories enjoyed by several of his nearby Liberal colleagues as the party snagged six of eight Saint John-area ridings.
A factor that may help Keir in what is shaping up to be a tight race is the upstart People's Alliance of New Brunswick, a party born out of anger over the NB Power deal. It hopes to run about 20 candidates across the province.
In the last political poll it garnered one per cent of decided voters, but it has pockets of support in areas where it is fielding strong local candidates. Many candidates and members of the party's executive, including its leader, Kris Austin, are former PC members. It is expected that in many ridings the alliance will drain support from the Progressive Conservatives.
Only a few months after it was declared an official party, Keir said he has already seen the appeal of the alliance start to fade.
"New parties being formed isn't new in New Brunswick. That's democracy at its best. I don't have any issue with that," he said.
It's doubtful that the alliance will become a lasting force, says Jim Webb, someone who understands the rise of upstart political parties in New Brunswick. Two decades ago, Webb helped create the Confederation of Regions Party, which shocked many people by forming the official opposition in 1991. After it disappeared, he started the Grey Party, which went nowhere fast.
Still, he has to be considered an expert on populist anti-establishment political movements. The alliance is "just another party that's going to act the same," Webb said. "After they get in, after three days you won't know the difference."