Progressive Conservative Leader David Alward made history in 2010 by becoming the first political leader to defeat a one-term government in New Brunswick history.
As Alward heads into the Sept. 22 election, he will be trying to avoid the missteps of his predecessor.
The 54-year-old first-term premier from the western riding of Carleton-York, faces a bumpy path to re-election as his party has been forced to deal with weak poll numbers and some controversial policies, particularly around forestry and shale gas development.
Despite this, Alward said he feels very confident about his chances for re-election as he heads into his second campaign as the Tory leader.
“I feel very good about the decisions that we have taken. 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,” Alward said.
“Change is unrelenting today and the pace is ever picking up and it is more and more difficult for people to deal with the issues we face.”
In difficult times, Alward said he believes New Brunswickers will look to his “inclusive, stable, strong and focused” leadership.
The electoral landscape, however, is very different for Alward’s Tories as they head into the 2014 campaign.
Alward crushed Shawn Graham’s Liberals in 2010, thanks in part to a litany of policy failures and scandals, such as the $50 million in loan guarantees to the Atcon group of companies, the botched attempt to sell NB Power to Hydro-Québec and mishandled proposals to reform post-secondary education and the French immersion program.
Born: Dec. 2, 1959
Education: Bachelor of arts in psychology and natural science from Brian College in Tennessee.
Political life: First elected in the riding of Woodstock in 1999. Appointed minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Aquaculture in 2003. Elected leader of the Progressive Conservative Party in 2008. Elected premier of New Brunswick on Sept. 27. 2010.
Personal: Married to Rhonda Alward. They have two sons: Jonathan and Benjamin.
But the Progressive Conservatives have been trailing in public opinion polls for more than a year and by June the Liberals had opened up a 25-percentage-point lead over the Tories.
Further, 35 per cent of those polled said they were completely or mostly satisfied with the government’s performance. Don Mills, the chairman of Corporate Research Associates, said he has never seen an incumbent premier win re-election with the government satisfaction level below 50 per cent.
The Tory leader said he believes his party has a solid message that will resonate with voters and ultimately turn around those poll numbers.
Alward stressed the collective experience of those running in the 49 races around the province.
“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.”
“If you look at 2010, if he became premier … as a result of more a referendum on the Liberals, then this will be a real test for him to try to deliver a message that people will support,” Lewis said.
“He’s not going to be able to go directly against their [Liberal] record and he will have to defend his own. For him personally, this will be a communications test that he has had to go through yet.”
Tom Bateman, a political scientist at St. Thomas University, said Alward may use the fact that he did not stumble into as many policy controversies as his predecessor to his advantage.
“Mr. Alward can probably say to New Brunswickers that he has avoided reckless policy reforms and he might remind New Brunswickers of some of the failed initiatives of the previous government and he will also say that his government has done the very best under very, very trying circumstances,” Bateman said.
When he reflects on his first term, the Tory leader pointed to two policies as legacy items that will continue to have a positive impact on the province long after his political career is over.
“The pension reform that we have been able to bring forward to provide stability for the finances of the province to protect pensioners and employees and taxpayers. That certainly is extremely important,” he said.
“If you look at the legislation that we brought forward on the prescription drug program, something that will have a lasting impact on the province of New Brunswick.”
While Alward is quick to point to a number of policies that he believes will resonate with voters, UNB’s Lewis said the Tory leader does not have a signature issue from his first term that he can take on the hustings to try and win support.
'Certainly if we look at the work we’ve been doing to develop our natural resources, whether it is shale gas or whether it is pipelines or whether it is in forestry, the comments that are made that I’m in the pocket of large companies, this type of thing. No. That couldn’t be further from the truth.' - Progressive Conservative Leader David Alward
“The Tories may try to build on the narrative of a good manager. It’s not the flash, it’s the consistency,” Lewis said.
The Progressive Conservatives will be forced to defend parts of their record that may be politically difficult.
In 2010, Alward told voters that his word would be his “contract.” But the Tories were unable to keep their promises not to raise income taxes or to balance the budget by 2014.
Adding to the political headache, Alward will also have to contend with voters in some part of the province who are upset over his policies on issues, such as shale gas exploration and the Crown forestry deal.
Alward said he is often frustrated when he hears people criticize his government as being tied too closely to business, especially when it comes to creating jobs in the natural resource sector. The Tory leader said his motivation is very different than is often portrayed by his opponents.
“Certainly if we look at the work we’ve been doing to develop our natural resources, whether it is shale gas or whether it is pipelines or whether it is in forestry, the comments that are made that I’m in the pocket of large companies, this type of thing. No. That couldn’t be further from the truth,” Alward said.
“What I am focused on is ensuring that our sons and daughters, our husbands and wives have a chance to build their lives here and stay in New Brunswick and allow us as a government to provide the services that people need.”
The Alward government also faced its own unforced errors during its first term that proved to be embarrassing for the Tories.
In particular, Alward was criticized for a series of patronage appointments, something he criticized the former Liberal government of engaging in when he was opposition leader.
Shortly after the 2010 election, he appointed campaign managers Daniel Allain and Robert MacLeod to high-paying government jobs. The patronage allegations resurfaced when he appointed former cabinet minister Margaret-Ann Blaney to the position of chief executive officer of Efficiency New Brunswick.
Tom Bateman, a political science professor at St. Thomas University, said these were easy errors for Alward to avoid. But by appointing his political friends to these plum jobs, Bateman said Alward reinforced the cynicism that many voters have toward politicians.
“Most New Brunswickers are not a member of a political party and they don’t quite get the very close, team oriented, tribal character of political parties,” Bateman said.
“And when they see such an obvious, transparent promotion of a political appointment over a transparent hiring process for a position in government, they are incredulous, they don’t get it.”
Alward at times has not been as visible as some of his senior cabinet ministers, such as Finance Minister Blaine Higgs, Health Minister Ted Flemming, Energy Minister Craig Leonard and Natural Resources Minister Paul Robichaud.
Bateman said Alward’s willingness to give others the spotlight has not hurt him politically.
“I would say integrity would be his strongest suit. I don’t think I have met anyone who considers him deceitful, dishonest, fraudulent or cynical,” Bateman said.
“Just about everybody is agreed that Mr. Alward is interested in the best possible public policy for the province. His struggle, of course, is to square very diverse positions and demands and I think that is why he has appeared indecisive.”
Alward has credited his entry into politics to former Liberal premier Frank McKenna. The Tory leader said he became so disenfranchised by McKenna-era decisions that he decided to run for office.
Alward was first elected in Bernard Lord’s landslide victory in 1999. He spent the first four years of the Lord government sitting on the backbench. Following the 2003 election, Lord picked Alward as his minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Aquaculture.
When Lord resigned as Tory leader after losing the 2006 election, Alward was one of two candidates to run to replace him.
Alward defeated Sussex businessman Robert MacLeod in the October 2008, convention in Fredericton.
MacLeod had been considered an early frontrunner, but Alward picked up many high-profile endorsements from the Progressive Conservative caucus.