Tories cling to shaky majority in photo finish election
Despite suffering heavy losses in a roller coaster ride of an election, a battered
Tory Premier Bernard Lord has hung onto just enough seats to form a majority government
in New Brunswick.
The Progressive Conservatives went into this election with a massive, 47-seat
majority, and Lord was clearly humbled by his huge loss in popular vote.
"To the people of New Brunswick, I hear your message," Lord told his supporters
at the end of a long night. "I can see clearly the challenges and I accept the
Listen to Bernard Lord's speech
The election was a cliffhanger from the outset, as the lead flipped between
the two major parties throughout the night. Two hours after the polls closed,
the race was still too close to call. The photo finish now sees the province with
the slimmest possible majority government for the Tories, with 28 seats. The Liberals
hold 26, and the NDP has one elected member, party leader Elizabeth Weir.
The Tories dropped 19 seats from what they held at the dissolution of the legislature
last month. Four cabinet ministers went down to defeat; Norm Betts (Business New
Brunswick), Kim Jardine (Environment and Local Government), Norm McFarlane (Labour),
and Rodney Weston (Agriculture and Aquaculture).
Coming up just two seats short of winning a majority government, the Liberals
captured 26 seats in Monday's provincial election. Close was good enough for Graham
on Monday. "We promised New Brunswickers a race and we sure delivered tonight.
What a great night to be home here in Kent County. You guys have made me so proud."
Listen to Shawn Graham's speech
Graham pledged to move the party to the political left in days leading up to
the election. He told supporters the Liberals will push the issues of lower car
insurance rates and the future of the publicly owned NB Power. "Today's vote demonstrates
that we as parties learn from one another, and all parties have ideas that speak
to all New Brunswickers."
Graham is the second generation in his family to represent the riding of Kent for the Liberals. He won the seat after his father retired as the MLA.
Graham has revived a party which was reduced to a mere 10 seats after the last provincial election. It lost three of those in subsequent byelections, and appeared to be facing a long time in the political wilderness.
"I offer my congratulations to Bernard Lord and his new caucus and I wish him wisdom and courage."
New Brunswickers have never voted out a government after a single term, but Graham attracted credible candidates who now form a strong opposition to the government. Liberals were elected in a number of key ridings in northern New Brunswick providing the extra support that almost made history.
"The work now begins, but it has been one heck of night in New Brunswick politics," Graham said before leaving the stage to place a call to Bernard Lord.
The Liberals began to surge in popularity mid-campaign, as they pounded the Tories for failing to solve the problem of skyrocketing auto insurance premiums. The dramatic fall in the Tories' public support is almost entirely blamed on the party's handling of the issue.
Car insurance was not even on the PC agenda at the start of the campaign and the depth of public anger appeared to take the party by surprise.
As opposition attacks intensified, the Tories were forced to backtrack from their support for market-driven rates. Lord's campaign promise to force a "no frills" insurance package on the industry wasn't enough to take the issue off the public radar.
Rookie Liberal leader Shawn Graham championed a 25 per cent insurance rate
drop and even suggested implementing a public auto insurance scheme. It was clearly
a platform that resonated with voters, as the Liberals gained substantially in
what was essentially a one-issue campaign.
NDP Leader Elizabeth Weir was the first out of the gate on the issue, advocating
a publicly owned insurance system similar to that of Manitoba. Weir had hoped
that her strong campaign combined with a handful of credible candidates could
translate into more wins. That wasn't to be, though, as Weir hung onto her own
seat but failed to elect anyone else.
Despite the party's disappointing showing, Weir now holds the balance of power in the legislature. She promises to use her kingmaker status to push for a public insurance system.
"It was the NDP that identified the solution to the car insurance problems of New Brunswickers," she told a crowd of party faithful Monday night.
"We are not going to stop until we have a driver-owned insurance system. It's the only plan that will work for New Brunswickers."
Listen to Elizabeth Weir's speech
Lord became premier in 1999, winning 44 of the 55 seats in the legislature, defeating a stunned Liberal majority government that had lasted 12 years under former premiers Frank McKenna and Camille Theriault.
During the past three years Lord's government gained three more seats in subsequent byelections where Liberal MLAs had resigned.