New Brunswick’s five political leaders used Tuesday night’s 90-minute English-language debate largely to discuss the shale gas industry and jobs, looking to lure voters as the province closes in on its Sept. 22 election.
Liberal Leader Brian Gallant faced a barrage of questions primarily from Progressive Conservative Leader David Alward and NDP Leader Dominic Cardy.
Gallant was repeatedly put on the defensive over his party’s commitment to spend $900 million over six years on infrastructure, such as roads and bridges.
The NDP leader hammered away at Gallant throughout the debate, repeatedly questioning whether New Brunswickers could afford to invest so much money into infrastructure projects.
“When you have got the NDP asking you, begging you, to stop spending money, you have got to start taking that seriously,” Cardy told Gallant.
Alward picked up on the theme, by portraying the Liberal platform commitment as not realistic.
“What you are proposing is not [financially sustainable] … the reality is, as a province, we cannot afford to continue the way we have been doing things,” Alward said.
Gallant deflected criticism over the costly infrastructure program by pointing to recent announcements by Canada’s premiers to ask the federal government to invest in more infrastructure programs. And he compared his proposed spending plan to recent capital budgets of the Alward government.
The Liberal leader also tried to frame his party’s election platform as a balanced approach following four years of “reckless cuts.”
“Mr. Alward has had a fixation on fracking and cuts in the last four years and where has that gotten us? It has gotten us 3,000 less full-time jobs, it has gotten us the first government in 40 years to not create any jobs for New Brunswickers,” Gallant said.
The Liberals have based their campaign around kickstarting the province’s weak economy. Gallant has committed to creating 10,000 jobs if he is elected on Sept. 22.
The Progressive Conservatives have designed an electoral strategy that centres on natural resource development, particularly the shale gas industry. The format of the leaders’ debate meant Alward was forced to pivot to other issues, which often exposed the Tory leader to criticism based on decisions made by his government in the last four years.
When the legislature was dissolved, the Tories held 41 seats and the Liberals had 13 seats and there was one Independent.
Shale gas debate
The segments of the debate that dealt with natural resource development offered Alward the greatest chance to differentiate his party.
The Tories started their re-election campaign outside of a natural gas well in Penobsquis and his party is explicitly in favour of developing a shale gas industry.
Alward said his government took the necessary steps to toughen laws around the shale gas industry and now it is time to allow companies to explore and develop.
“We took the opportunity to ensure that we had the strongest regulations in place in North America. And we can do better, as a province, to provide opportunities to the people in our province that have to leave for Saskatchewan, who could be doing the very same thing here,” he said.
Gallant’s Liberals have said they want a moratorium on shale gas until more questions are answered about the long-term safety of the public.
Gallant questioned Alward’s forecasts about how much revenue the industry would generate and how many jobs would be created. He said the 50 natural gas wells being promoted by the Tories will not be around until 2019 and that there is only a 10 per cent chance the industry will be viable.
“He is putting all of the eggs of New Brunswickers into this industry,” he said.
Gallant added, “Mr. Alward, I know you don’t want anything in your way, including the facts.”
Green Party Leader David Coon also attacked shale development. His party is as opposed to the shale gas industry as the Tories are in favour.
"The risks, the costs, the consequences to New Brunswickers far outweigh the benefits,” Coon said.
People’s Alliance Leader Kris Austin used the debate over the shale gas industry to remind voters of his party’s populist platform.
In an exchange with Alward, Austin dared the Tory leader to put the question over a shale gas industry directly to the people in a referendum.
“If you are trying to sell the people of New Brunswick on this great idea of fracking then why don’t you take it to the people in a referendum. Let the people decide, put the facts out, lay out exactly the pros and the cons so people know exactly what it is all about,” Austin said.
“This is not a referendum, this is a referendum on your track record over the last four years.”
The 90-minute debate also touched on issues, such as First Nations issues, poverty, health care and women's rights. In many of those sections, Cardy led the debates, engaging with the other party leaders.
In those cases, Gallant often hung back until near the end of the discussion and then offered his party's position.
Alward, Gallant and Cardy also participated in a French-language debate on Tuesday. It was hosted by Radio-Canada and aired while the English debate was on CBC.
The latest Corporate Research Associates poll said 48 per cent of decided voters intended to vote for the Liberals compared to 29 per cent for the Progressive Conservatives, 17 per cent for the NDP, four per cent for the Greens and two per cent for the People’s Alliance.
CRA surveyed 800 people between Aug. 19 and 31 on the telephone. The margin of error is plus or minus 3.5 percentage points, 19 times out of 20. The margin of error on the decided vote is four percentage points, based on a sample of 588.