Four years after sending the Liberal government to defeat after one term in office, David Alward's Progressive Conservatives want to ensure history doesn't repeat itself when New Brunswick goes to the polls on Sept. 22.
Alward's term was marked by budgetary pressures and public unrest about shale gas development, and his Conservatives begin their campaign for a second term trailing the front-running Liberals by 25 percentage points in the most recent public opinion poll.
Despite the Corporate Research Associations poll in June indicating the Liberals have the support of 53 per cent of decided voters, Alward is confident of his chances of capturing a second term and avoiding the one-term fate that befell Shawn Graham's Liberals in 2010 — the first New Brunswick government to be swept from office after only four years.
“I feel very good about the decisions that we have taken," said Alward, 54. "We will position New Brunswick better for tomorrow than we had it in 2010. We have been a government of action and because of that, sometimes things are difficult for people to deal with."
In difficult times, Alward said he believes New Brunswickers will look to his “inclusive, stable, strong and focused” leadership.
Alward thinks his party's message will resonate with voters and turn around the poll numbers. He stresses the collective experience of his Conservative team.
“We are the only party that is proven. We have 35 returning MLAs that are candidates, every cabinet minister is returning. That is a tremendous amount of experience,” he said.
“We’ve been proven through fire.”
Rookie Brian Gallant leads Liberals
The experience touted by Alward is meant to contrast the relative inexperience of Brian Gallant, the 32-year-old who is leading the Liberals into a campaign for the first time.
The front-running Gallant has been a target for the Conservatives and the New Democratic Party, and is unfazed by the attention.
"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 oldstyle politics of attacking your opponents. I think we should be talking to New Brunswickers about what our vision is for the province."
St. Thomas University political scientist Tom Bateman said the rookie Liberal leader will need to show 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, Shawn Graham, who was ousted from office in 2010 after a botched attempt to sell the Crown utility NB Power to Hydro- Québec.
"He will have to contend with the criticism that he is another version of a Shawn Graham: young, relatively inexperienced, lacking gravitas,” said Bateman.
Historically, New Brunswick elections come down to a battle between the Tories and Liberals. No other party has ever held power, and only rarely have other parties managed to gain a seat or more in the legislature,
In 2014, three other parties are on the ballot and seeking an electoral breakthrough.
ANALYSIS: Smaller parties seek breakthrough
- Dominic Cardy leads a more moderate New Democratic Party as it seeks to return to the floor of the legislature for the first time since 2005.
- David Coon, the main voice of political opposition to the Alward government's decision to allow industrial forest companies a 20 per cent increase in the amount of softwood they can cut on Crown land, is leading the Green Party into an election for the first time.
- Kris Austin leads the People's Alliance Party, which was formed out of protest around the NB Power file prior to the 2010 vote, and has drawn attention for its questions about bilingualism in Canada's only officially bilingual province.
Natural resources a focus of campaign
As the campaign unfolds, there is likely to be much talk on the trail about the natural resources, particularly shale gas and forestry.
In the lead-up to the campaign's official start, the Conservatives launched an ad campaign with the slogan "Say Yes" to resource development, jobs and prosperity.
Vocal opposition to shale gas exploration and potential development persisted for much of the past four years, culminating with a fiery clash between dozens of RCMP and protesters in Rexton in October 2013 that saw dozens of people arrested and six police vehicles destroyed by fire. Shale gas opponents had set up road blockades and prevented workers with SWN Resources Canada from accessing their vehicles and equipment for weeks.
Shale gas development involves a process known as hydraulic fracturing, or hydro-fracking, where a mixture of sand, chemicals and water is injected into the earth at high pressure to break apart shale rock formations to release natural gas held within the rock. Opponents fear the potential impact on the environment, particularly the ground water supply.
Alward and the Conservatives have not hidden their hope that shale gas development can take root in the province and put the brakes on a ballooning debt that is forecast to top $12 billion this year.
But Gallant and the Liberals have not committed to shale gas development, saying more information is needed.
'We should not blindly take on this risk when there are other options to create jobs.' - Brian Gallant, Liberal leader
"Their fixation with fracking is concerning too — they're putting all their eggs in one basket," said Gallant. "Meanwhile, we lack information to fully understand the potential risks fracking poses to our water, environment and health."
Gallant said the federal government and Nova Scotia's Liberal government have both received reports saying there is not enough information about fracking.
"We should not blindly take on this risk when there are other options to create jobs."
No active shale gas exploration is currently taking place in the province. SWN Resources Canada has announced plans to drill four test wells in 2015 in efforts to determine whether full-scale shale gas development is feasible in the area.
Another centrepiece of the Conservatives' resource development strategy is the deal the party announced with the forest industry in March that would increase the amount of softwood industrial forest companies can cut on Crown land by 20 per cent. The industry and government said the deal is needed to secure and create jobs and investment in the forestry sector, which is the province's largest industry. But many academics and environmentalists challenged whether an increase of that magnitude is sustainable.
The new forest contracts were to be signed by July 1, and then were to be signed by the start of the campaign.
But with one week to go before the campaign's start, the chiefs of the 15 First Nations in New Brunswick went to court seeking a temporary 10-day injunction to block the deal from being signed, arguing the government didn't sufficiently consult with First Nations as is required, given their aboriginal and treaty rights involving natural resources. The subsequent court hearing heard the contract between the government and J.D. Irving Ltd., the province's largest forestry company, was signed on the day the injunction motion was filed with the courts.
Court of Queen's Bench Justice Judy Clendening is scheduled to rule Friday on the request for a 10-day injunction.
Precarious financial position
The political talk of the need for job creation comes against a backdrop of hard financial times in New Brunswick.
Alward started his first term in 2010 promising to balance the books in his first mandate. That didn't happen, as Finance Minister Blaine Higgs announced in his 2014-15 budget speech it would be another three years before the province can reasonably expect to balance its books and start paying down a debt that is to top $12 billion this year.
'The risk is that with any change in government it all stops, it all disappears and someone has to reinvent this.' - Blaine Higgs, finance minister
Higgs and the Tories peg the failure to balance the books on a slumping economy that is now improving. The Conservatives maintain continued improvement depends on the Tories remaining in office and it would be too risky to allow the Liberals to return to office.
"We really have stabilized in New Brunswick and we really feel confident in that. The risk is that with any change in government, it all stops, it all disappears and someone has to reinvent this," Higgs said in late July.
"The focus of our government has been setting up a continuous improvement process that carries on government after government," said Higgs. "That process is not solidified at this point and I am very concerned that that's all at risk in an election, and that's why certainly I'm being part of this election because we can't lose this."