It's always tempting to search for analogies in politics: if we see an event through the prism of something we've experienced before, it's easier to understand.
This week, as anti-fracking protests took on a new militancy, we heard some remarkable rhetoric from the Alward government. Natural Resources Minister Bruce Northrup said the government was "listening," but he also insisted that the government has "done our homework" and that it simply needs to "get the information to people."
Sound familiar? Remember the sale of NB Power to Hydro-Québec? That, too, was defined by the government of the day as a sound policy initiative that had been thoroughly and carefully researched, and that only required a better effort to communicate the wisdom of the decision to the voters.
Former energy minister Jack Keir said on Twitter this week that Northrup's arguments sound "eerily" like his own during the NB Power debate, except, of course Northrup's party ran hard against Keir's and the Liberals' way of doing things.
But NB Power may not be as apt an analogy for the fracking controversy as the toll highway controversy of 1998-99. During that debate, the Liberal government felt it could easily overcome opposition to the toll road, because the critics were concentrated in a few, isolated areas of the province. This was not a widespread, "provincial" controversy.
That's the key political question about fracking: will it grow beyond remote areas like Route 625 near Stanley, or Cumberland Bay on Grand Lake? It's not a pocketbook issue, either, the way car insurance was in 2003, when it snuck up on, and nearly toppled, Bernard Lord's PC government.
There are differences between fracking and the toll highway. The Liberals were in their third term at the time, and there were a number of pent-up grievances over a wide range of unpopular initiatives. All that was missing was a catalyst, which Bernard Lord provided when he promised to remove the tolls. This made him a symbol of a change away from all the Liberal controversies, and it swept him to power. It's unlikely Alward has, in less than a year in power, accumulated enough controversy to reach that kind of a tipping point.
But don't rule it out: Shawn Graham, after all, managed to reach just such a tipping point in a single mandate. You would not have expected him to have a lot of baggage after three years as premier. But the NB Power sale was fatal not just on its own merits, but also because it highlighted the entire Liberal narrative: big, bold initiatives (think French immersion changes, or post-secondary education proposals in Saint John) that angered wide swaths of the electorate.
There may not be a perfect analogy in any of these examples for what the Alward government is experiencing. But the rhetoric is starting to sound mighty familiar. And the fact that the government's spin machine is shifting resources and setting up a dedicated team of public-relations staff to focus exclusively on fracking is another sign. The premier has a political problem on his hands.
- Jacques Poitras