Brian Gallant says he's not planning for the next election, but the premier's new cabinet lineup amounts to a road map to his strategy for winning a second mandate.
Gallant's new cabinet dumps three veteran cabinet ministers, promotes three newcomers and sends a signal to Saint John that the Liberals see it as a priority one year before the next campaign.
More telling than any particular cabinet appointment is the premier's decision to make himself the regional minister for Saint John and southwest New Brunswick, despite his having no particular connection to the area.
Gallant also chose to announce the new cabinet duties in Saint John, using an eighth-floor room at City Hall for his news conference on Tuesday.
"This is an important region to our province for our economy, education, and health care and I look forward to working with community leaders here in the region to advance their priorities," he said.
The premier will set up a regional office in the city and shift some of his staff there, including Jack Keir, the former MLA and cabinet minister who joined Gallant's office last year as a political adviser.
Gallant was anxious Tuesday to talk up the amount of time he already spends in the city, listing a number of festivals he has attended there and adding that Mayor Don Darling teased him "that I should probably just get an apartment here anyway."
"We actually are in the area quite often. This I think will ensure we will continue to do that and also maybe formalize the relationship a bit more."
In the 2014 election, the Liberals won only two seats in the city — Saint John Harbour and Saint John East. The latter riding flipped back to the Progressive Conservatives in a byelection after the Liberal winner, Gary Keating, quit almost immediately.
It makes Saint John a key part of Gallant's strategy to hold on to his three-seat majority in the legislature in the election scheduled for Sept. 24, 2018.
"This is a part of the province that the Liberals need to compete in," said J.P. Lewis, a political scientist at the University of New Brunswick in Saint John.
Even so, Gallant claimed Tuesday that "nothing today is about the next election."
'Good news for Saint Johners'
Darling attended Gallant's news conference and said the city would capitalize on all the attention.
"The fact that the premier has chosen to take on Saint John as its regional minister is good news for Saint Johners and our priorities over the next year," he said.
But Darling wouldn't say if he thought the move was motivated by the election.
"You can ask the premier that question," he said.
When reporters pointed out that they had and Gallant denied it, and asked the mayor if he believed it, Darling again refused to say.
"My answer to the question is that's for him to answer."
Lewis said the answer was clear.
"These shuffles that take place a year out from a provincial or federal election have a lot to do with the election," he said. "This is a very common practice."
Progressive Conservative Leader Blaine Higgs said the move wouldn't fool anyone in Saint John.
"It's politics as traditionally practised," Higgs said. "People are tired of this."
He said Gallant's new role didn't change anything "unless 'change' is throwing more money around and hoping for the best."
Gallant's awarding himself the Saint John job wasn't the only cabinet move that could help the Liberals next year.
He dropped three veteran ministers who have decided not to run again, including two, Ed Doherty and Victor Boudreau, who have been the target of fierce opposition criticism.
Doherty was the minister responsible for Service New Brunswick during the property assessment fiasco, though he was rarely available to articulate the government's message on the controversy.
Boudreau, meanwhile, recused himself from the Parlee Beach contamination issue after the province's integrity commissioner said his investment in an area campground created an "unavoidable" perception of a conflict of interest. Boudreau later gave up his investment.
'This is our chance to have new people step up and bring different perspectives and approaches to important files for the people of New Brunswick.' - Brian Gallant, premier
Both ministers said Tuesday they were leaving willingly and hadn't been pushed out.
Gallant paid tribute to them and to Donald Arseneault, the third minister shuffled out.
"I think that they've done great work," he said, "and this is our chance to have new people step up and bring different perspectives and approaches to important files for the people of New Brunswick."
One of the new faces, Andrew Harvey, won his Carleton-Victoria riding by just 82 votes in the last election.
His promotion to minister of agriculture and mining means all three Liberal MLAs who were elected by narrow margins in anglophone New Brunswick last time — Harvey, John Ames and Stephen Horsman — now have the prestige of a cabinet post to take into the next campaign.