David Alward was missing.
The Progressive Conservative campaign bus was pulled over on the shoulder of a rural road off the Trans-Canada Highway near Memramcook.
Ten minutes went by. The bus was now late for the next event on the campaign schedule, at an orchard on the other side of Memramcook.
And the leader was nowhere to be seen.
Finally, I clued in to what was going on.
Alward’s son Ben had just arrived back in New Brunswick from his job in the Alberta oil fields, and had jumped on the PC bus in Moncton for a brief, if unorthodox, visit with his parents.
Meanwhile, Ben’s girlfriend, from Truro, N.S., was driving to meet the bus — and, not incidentally, to meet David and Rhonda Alward for the first time.
But a change to Ben’s flights had knocked everything out of sync. The roadside rendezvous was in jeopardy.
So the PC leader had personally ordered the bus to pull over outside Memramcook so that the unnamed girlfriend could catch up.
Then Ben, David and Rhonda disembarked and headed away from the bus, out of sight of the journalists, to meet the young woman.
It was a natural, human moment, and it wasn’t orchestrated for the media. There was no photo-op. It took place out of our sight range.
But it also spoke to the kind of campaign the PC leader is conducting: down-to-earth and curiously unhurried, with none of the frantic activity you’d expect from a premier fighting for his political life 10 days before election day.
Outwardly, the Tories simply don’t display the tight discipline of the Liberals.
On Brian Gallant’s bus, a former air force navigator barks out precise commands and updates journalists on arrival and departure times to the second. In contrast, Michel Léger, the PC wagonmaster, keeps things organized and moving, but with a more relaxed, avuncular manner.
Nor is there the same image control. Reporters were shooed off the Liberal bus first at every arrival, a not-so-subtle encouragement to capture pictures of Gallant disembarking, each time wearing the same delighted smile as he greeted cheering partisans.
On the PC bus, Alward and his wife always get off first, with reporters trailing behind.
And while Gallant generally stays at the back of the Liberal bus, monastically studying his notes and consulting with advisers, Alward is a constant presence up front, chatting to reporters about a range of topics, weighty and light — unassuming and amiable as always.
He’s also been more available than Gallant for impromptu scrums and interviews, even when the topic, such as the dropping of fraud charges against Liberal candidate Andrew Harvey, isn’t necessarily a political winner for him.
'Campaign is remarkably disciplined'
But in one way the PC campaign is remarkably disciplined: no matter what the occasion, no matter what the setting, the message always comes back to shale gas, and to the exhortation to voters that they must “Say Yes” to the industry.
A campaign stop in Moncton? Put the photo-op in the CN rail yard, with freight trains that carry our natural resource products to market — “the heartbeat of New Brunswick’s economy,” as Alward described it. “Say Yes.”
Saint John? Set up on the roof of a building at the port, as a tugboat glides into the harbour in the background. “New Brunswick’s world-class ports will be key to our plan,” Alward said. Ships, resources, markets: “Say Yes.”
True, sometimes it’s a challenge to stretch the slogan to fit the occasion: in Moncton, the trains in the photo were a visible symbol of trade — but Alward also compared his “Say Yes” message to the city’s turnaround in the 1990s, after CN abandoned its repair shops and the area was forced to embrace a range of new, post-railroad industries.
“What this community decided to do was go forward instead of stand still,” he said.
“Leaders here could have stood by as their businesses were boarded up, homes abandoned as people moved away to find work. They could have said no to the possibilities. Instead they took a different direction and said yes to the opportunities they had.”
Liberal candidate Roger Melanson responded that the comparison didn’t hold up: rather than put all its eggs in one basket — as he says Alward is doing with shale gas — Moncton pursued a range of sectors, including information technology, call centres and retail.
“It’s about having a diversified approach,” Melanson said.
“That’s what Moncton did. And it’s about going after a sector that is safe.”
But even if “Say Yes” was occasionally an awkward fit, a mangled metaphor, the PC leader made it work for some voters.
“I questioned it at first, about the gas,” said Janet Skinner, who lives in a Moncton seniors’ residence Alward visited, “but now I’ve come around.”
Saint John was a more straightforward setting for Alward. The province’s most entrepreneurial, trade-oriented city is seen by Tory strategists as a key base of support for the PC message on shale gas.
On Friday Alward spoke to a luncheon organized by the regional Chamber of Commerce, the last of the party leaders to take part.
He was greeted enthusiastically, even with some whoops — though it may have been the perpetually rambunctious PC candidates Trevor Holder and Glen Savoie making that noise.
Even so, there’s no question Saint John’s business establishment supports the PC message.
Mayor Mel Norton has offered the PCs everything but an official endorsement, telling the crowd that “the level of cooperation between the city and the province has never been better” and praising the resource development focus, including shale gas.
Alward himself sharpened his attacks on Gallant at the luncheon. He compared the $900-million Liberal infrastructure plan to “Shawn Graham-style job creation” and the huge deficits it created.
And he slammed Gallant for supporting the Energy East pipeline and Canaport LNG but not shale development.
“You can call it out of touch, dishonest or inexperienced — I personally call it irresponsible or hypocritical,” Alward said.
Then, referring to one of Gallant’s previous jobs as a tennis coach, Alward added, “Perhaps I can put it in some terms Brian Gallant can understand. Allowing exploration but banning fracking is like setting up a tennis match but banning tennis balls.”
There was a brief silence after that attack, then some awkward applause. If the line was too personal, it may have been a case of overconfidence, a result of another feature of the PC campaign: most of Alward’s events take place in a bubble, where he preaches, safely, to the converted.
Lack of public interaction
I saw a little or no interaction with ordinary, undecided voters.
At the CN photo-op, only PC partisans were invited. At the Memramcook orchard, Alward met employees, but there were no chance encounters with members of the public. A barbecue in Irishtown, outside Moncton, late on Friday featured an entirely PC crowd.
One encounter at the picnic showed the political risk of such bubble events: a local woodlot owner, a Tory supporter, buttonholed Alward about the PC forestry plan and the news that some J.D. Irving wood from Crown land was shipped to Nova Scotia.
They had a detailed and intense 10-minute conversation.
Afterward, the man told me he didn’t want to be interviewed. He credited Alward with making a persuasive case, and he said because he likes his local candidate, he’s probably still vote PC.
But he also said he still doubts whether there’s enough wood on Crown land to satisfy the plan, and still worries how it will affect private woodlots.
The risk for Alward is that there are other wavering voters he’s not meeting at all. Despite the relaxed schedule and the easygoing air on the bus, he may be too cocooned to reach anyone other than the already convinced.
At least one contact did click on Friday, though.
After David and Rhonda Alward had met their son Ben’s girlfriend, Ben hopped into her car with her, while the PC leader and his wife returned to the bus, ready to resume the trip to the next event.
Léger, the wagonmaster, broke the silence by declaring loudly, “She said yes!” — a perfect play on the convergence of the slogan and the girlfriend. The whole bus erupted in laughter.
There wasn’t actually an engagement, but the Alwards apparently liked the young woman and she liked them — an important bond, but not the kind the PC leader needs to clinch another mandate.