Liberal Leader Brian Gallant understands that heading into the 2014 election campaign he is going to have a very large target on his back.
The rookie Liberal leader has maintained a comfortable lead in the public opinion polls for a year, even while facing the brunt of the political attacks from both the Progressive Conservatives and the New Democratic Party.
Gallant is also trying to knock off the second one-term government in the province’s history, a feat first achieved by David Alward’s Progressive Conservatives in 2010.
The 32-year-old Liberal leader said he is unfazed by the attention he knows will be coming his way.
Born: April 27, 1982, in Moncton
Education: Bachelor of business administration and law from the University of Moncton. Master of law from McGill University.
Political life: Elected Liberal leader in 2012. Elected in the 2013 Kent byelection.
"We just have to look at the actions of the Alward government for the last year and a half, they used the legislature to attack me at every chance," Gallant said.
"We also see the NDP spending most of their time attacking us instead of looking at the policies of the governing party. That is the old style politics of attacking your opponents, I think we should be talking to New Brunswickers about what our vision is for the province."
The focus of the Liberal campaign will be jobs and the economy. Gallant said he believes voters are ready to have a serious conversation about the challenges that face the province.
"I think because of the economic indicators that are going in the wrong direction over the last four years, people are ready to have a real conversation about our province and our future," he said.
"No doubt, we face many challenges, but with challenges come opportunities. We are cognizant that we have challenges, but we want to have a real conversation."
Tom Bateman, a political scientist at St. Thomas University, said Gallant needs to move quickly in the campaign to show that he is not out of his depth.
“He is going to want to come out with some pretty thoughtful, well-founded policy positions and he’ll need to be able to debate that position with others quite successfully," he said.
Bateman said the Liberal leader needs to prove to voters that he is not a carbon copy of his predecessor.
"He will have to contend with the criticism that he is another version of a Shawn Graham: young, relatively inexperienced, lacking gravitas,” the STU political science professor said.
The Tories have already started to use experience as a wedge issue. Finance Minister Blaine Higgs has said the province's economic recovery is still fragile and the province cannot afford to switch governments in the Sept. 22 election.
The Liberal leader said he found it surprising that Higgs wanted to take credit for the economic situation.
"It’s a very surprising argument to hear that the Alward government would try to argue that we should stay the course," Gallant said.
"This course under the Alward government has led to us losing 3,600 jobs since October 2010, the worst or second worst GDP growth year after year and one of the worst unemployment rates in recent memory."
Shale gas and abortion politics
Shale gas exploration has been a divisive issue in New Brunswick politics for the last three years.
Protests have been held across the province and politicians have been forced to articulate a position on the contentious mining practice known as hydraulic fracturing, or hydro-fracking.
The Liberal leader has faced pressure to embrace the potential for shale gas exploration from some within his party, particularly from former Liberal premier Frank McKenna.
McKenna has spoken publicly about the economic windfall that the provincial government could benefit from if the shale gas industry is allowed to prosper. But Gallant has done his best to avoid being pinned down on the shale gas question.
He has continued his call for a moratorium on the shale gas industry until more questions can be answered. But the Liberals adopted a motion at the party’s April policy convention that allows the moratorium to be lifted if the province’s chief medical officer's recommendations for more health protections are adopted.
Gallant also waded into the contentious issue of abortion after the Morgentaler Clinic in Fredericton announced it was going to close. While abortion-rights advocates have called on the Liberal leader to be more forceful on the issue, Gallant has pushed his party away from a long-standing policy that restricts abortion.
In April, Liberal members passed two resolutions that called for "access to a full range of publicly funded family planning information and services" and to "improve access to reproductive health services that meet national standards and respect the Canada Health Act."
Gallant said he believes New Brunswickers are ready to put the abortion policies created in the 1990s firmly in the past. He said he has no regrets about engaging in a debate about abortion in an election year.
"When we make any announcement or decision on a policy position, it is based on what we believe is best for New Brunswickers. It has nothing to do with electoral chances," Gallant said.
"I believe New Brunswickers are very pragmatic, they want to see what evidence you are basing your decisions on. That is always the lens that I will look at any decision through."
Gallant will be a new face during leaders’ debates in 2014, but this will not be the first time his name has been on a ballot during a general election.
As a 24-year-old law student at the University of Moncton, Gallant ran unsuccessfully against then-premier Bernard Lord in the Moncton East riding in 2006. Lord easily defeated Gallant even as the Liberals went on to form a majority government.
Gallant opted to sit out the 2007 byelection to replace Lord, who resigned after the provincial election. That allowed Liberal Chris Collins to win the seat for the Liberals.
Instead, Gallant finished his law degree and started his career.
In 2012, he announced that he would re-enter politics by running for the Liberal leadership.
Gallant was up against Michael Murphy, the former Liberal health minister, who had quit politics during the height of the NB Power controversy, and Nick Duivenvoorden, a Belledune farmer.
Gallant won 59.26 per cent of the points awarded in the Liberal leadership race, followed by Murphy’s 37.9 per cent and Duivenvoorden’s 2.7 per cent.
The Liberal leader only had a few months to get a handle on the party’s leadership when his next electoral test came about.
Following the release of a damning report by the province’s conflict-of-interest commissioner into his handling of the Atcon file, Graham resigned his Kent riding.
Gallant decided to run in the riding and won with 3,543 votes compared to 1,615 votes for NDP candidate Susan Levi-Peters and 837 votes for Tory candidate Jimmy Bourque.
Gallant has spent the weeks leading up to the election campaign speaking to groups around the province. Although he's been visible at different public events, he has not a high profile in the media.
J.P. Lewis, a political science professor at the University of New Brunswick in Saint John, said the Liberals are playing a risky game by keeping Gallant away from the media spotlight so close to the election campaign.
“I think a lot will weigh on his shoulders of what happens on the campaign trail. I think he probably has low expectations because New Brunswickers don’t know him that well, unless you are someone who follows the New Brunswick legislature [television] channel or you follow what happens in Fredericton very closely,” he said.
“He is somewhat an unknown commodity.”
The party must have internal polling showing Gallant’s popularity is high enough that he can afford to have a low public profile, the political observer said.
“There is no way of knowing if playing it safe works. We know that playing it bold can definitely not work, using the [Ontario PC Leader Tim] Hudak model,” Lewis said.
“But you would think he has to get out there unless New Brunswickers are really that disgruntled with the Conservative government.”