It was a rare slip in the otherwise smoothly-organized, disciplined Liberal election campaign.
The Liberals chose Friday to highlight their promise to support New Brunswick-based food and beverage producers. Leader Brian Gallant planned to deliver the message twice, at a farm in Rivière-Verte and a microbrewery in Florenceville-Bristol.
In advance of the two events, the campaign distributed a press release to reporters.
“Gallant pointed out that a recent policy decision by the Alward government makes starting a new microbrewery very difficult,” the release said. “A Liberal government would reverse that policy.”
There were two problems with that paragraph.
One was subtle: the policy — to require microbreweries to sell 10,000 units in NB Liquor stores before they would be allowed to retail it in their own breweries — was created by NB Liquor, not the government.
Still, it made for a convenient target for the Liberals, a seemingly inane, bureaucratic requirement that would deter entrepreneurs from starting microbreweries.
The other problem practically leapt off the page: NB Liquor had reversed the policy on Aug. 15, two weeks earlier, as several New Brunswickers immediately pointed out on social media.
“Looks like the Libs are late to the game,” said one Twitter user, Andrew Agnew.
Marc Lanteigne wrote that he “found it weird the libs wanted to do something already done.”
The Liberals eventually told journalists that the release had been an early draft, written before the policy reversal of Aug. 15 and had been sent out by mistake. They promised the correct version soon.
But the correct version took some time: Gallant huddled with his team at the back of the bus, which sat idling in a gas station parking lot not far from the Rivière-Verte farm.
Liberal gaffe a rarity during campaign
The minutes ticked by, past the scheduled start of the event. The Liberal leader was late — a rarity during his tour.
Eventually, the revised release appeared. “Gallant pointed out that recent policy decisions by the Alward government on microbreweries had created confusion and demonstrated the lack of any strategy for local foods and beverages,” it said.
The new version certainly dovetailed nicely with Gallant’s argument: a coherent strategy would avoid the confusing back-and-forth of NB Liquor’s microbrewery policy and make it easier for entrepreneurs to plan ahead and create jobs.
But there were signs that the new version hadn’t been sitting on a hard drive but was instead put together on the fly: in both Rivière-Verte and Florenceville-Bristol, Gallant stumbled over his words when delivering that section of his speech to crowds of Liberal supporters.
And when a reporter asked why he was announcing he would, in effect, maintain the two-week-old reversal of the decision, Gallant was momentarily stymied.
“That’s more of a communications or public relations question,” Gallant said.
“You can talk to the communications people about that. It’s important for me to show New Brunswickers what a Liberal government would look like: what programs we’d keep and what programs we’d change.”
The episode was striking because, for the most part, the Liberal campaign had been running like the proverbial well-oiled machine.
During my four days on the Liberal bus, Gallant sped through events in Fredericton, St. Stephen, Saint John, Grand Bay-Westfield, Dieppe, Beresford, Campbellton, Kedgwick, Riviere-Verte and Florenceville-Bristol.
Except for the delay in Rivière-Verte, the tour was a tightly-run ship, crisply efficient and always on time.
Gavin Menzies, a former air force navigator and one-time military aide-de-camp to Gov.-Gen. Romeo LeBlanc, barked out detailed directions to the driver, guiding the bus to its locations with pinpoint accuracy and timing.
At each stop, Gallant was at ease, upbeat and on-message. Crowds of Liberal partisans greeted him warmly.
More broadly, the Liberal leader had a plan and was executing it: brush off Progressive Conservative Leader David Alward’s attempt to make the election a referendum on shale gas and keep rolling out elements of the Liberal platform, tying each of them to the goal of spurring job creation.
And it seemed to be working. The first day of the campaign, Aug. 21, was dominated by Alward’s message that voters should “Say Yes” to shale gas and the jobs development would create. It was designed to put Gallant on the defensive.
By the time the first week had elapsed, however, the Tories were the ones playing defence. On Aug. 28 the PC campaign organized an extraordinary news conference featuring seven cabinet ministers, who took turns at the podium attacking Gallant’s plans.
NDP Leader Dominic Cardy piled on as well, denouncing as “crazy” Gallant’s promise to spend $900 million over six years on provincial infrastructure.
The critiques were tough, but the discussion had shifted from Alward’s shale gas plan to Gallant’s platform, an indication he was setting the terms of the debate.
Still, even before the microbrewery episode, there were hints the Liberal campaign might be vulnerable.
On most days, the Liberal bus tour allowed journalists a single scrum with Gallant, usually in the morning when he delivered his key message. For the rest of the day, he was inaccessible to reporters, greeting party supporters without taking questions.
It was a contrast to the PC campaign bus, where, on the first day of his tour, Alward chatted at length with reporters and his handlers offered the media “anything you need” for access and interviews.
Gallant spent most of the bus travel time out of journalistic earshot, working on his remarks or conferring with advisers, such as campaign co-chair Dominic LeBlanc or party executive director Ellen Creighton.
Then, on Thursday — after Radio-Canada reported on the restricted access — the Liberals opened up a little.
Arriving ahead of schedule in Campbellton, the Liberals parked the bus at a school so Gallant could come up front and hold an onboard scrum to rebut the attacks by the seven ministers.
Criticism over $900M infrastructure, jobs plan
Gallant says the numbers add up in his $900 million infrastructure plan: it will stimulate the creation of 1,700 jobs, according to a study commissioned by the Liberals.
The resulting tax revenue and other spin-offs, combined with additional measures like a strategic review of spending, will get the budget balanced in six years, the Liberals estimate.
That may be a more realistic target than the PC’s balanced-budget goal of 2017 — after all, the Tories have fallen badly short of their original target of a surplus this year — but not every voter will read Gallant’s charts and tables.
What they may retain instead is that figure of $900 million, or “almost a billion,” the more alarming phrase his opponents prefer to use when they describe it.
And if voters are more sensitive to the province’s grave financial situation than they were four years ago, they could decide “almost a billion” is too expensive for their tastes.
So Thursday saw Gallant scrum to rebut the Tories, and then on Friday — the day of the microbrewery mix-up — he added a second impromptu availability in as many days, again to talk about his infrastructure plan.
Perhaps it was an attempt to distract attention from the beer mistake, or perhaps the Liberals felt it’s a winning issue for them and they wanted to keep it in the headlines for another day.
Premiers endorse infrastructure spending
Someone from the Liberal campaign had noticed a communiqué from a meeting of the provincial premiers in Charlottetown the previous day, a meeting Alward attended.
“Reliable, resilient infrastructure boosts productivity, supports strong communities, protects public safety, helps manage congestion, and facilitates getting goods to market,” the communiqué said.
For Alward to join premiers in praising infrastructure while denouncing the Liberal infrastructure plan was “duplicity,” Gallant said.
(The Tories say Alward had left the premiers’ meeting early to campaign, before that communiqué was drafted. Even long-time PC adviser David McLaughlin said in a tweet, however, that statements from premiers’ meetings were drafted by “consensus … Doesn't go in communique unless all agree.”)
The other possible explanation for Friday’s extra availability was that the attacks on the $900 million infrastructure plan were starting to resonate with voters.
Whatever the reason, by the start of the long weekend, the Liberal campaign was beginning to react to unexpected events rather than stick to its script.
If that continues — if criticism of, and concern about, the infrastructure price tag grows — the dynamic will challenge the smooth, sleek discipline of the Liberal campaign.
After all, governments frequently have to respond to surprises and unforeseen crises.
How Brian Gallant reacts when knocked off his game in an election campaign may give New Brunswickers an indication of how well he would do it as premier.