The Progressive Conservative Party's new election slogan, unveiled in recent days, is a direct challenge to Liberal Leader Brian Gallant’s attempt to walk a fine line on natural resource issues.
Gallant hasn’t been clear on what he would do about shale gas development and wood supply allocation if he becomes premier after the Sept. 22 election.
The Tories hope to use that to their advantage by turning the election into a straight yes-no choice on those issues.
The party has unveiled TV ads with the slogan, "Say Yes." One features PC Premier David Alward using the line repeatedly in the state of the province speech, while another shows a series of "No" signs.
Both end by urging the viewer to, "Say Yes to shale gas, jobs and prosperity. Say Yes to Premier David Alward."
Alward hammered the theme again this week in Doaktown, where the biggest employer is a J.D. Irving Ltd. mill. The company has promised to upgrade the mill thanks to Alward’s plan to let it cut more wood on Crown land.
Speaking to about 50 people at the Atlantic Salmon Museum, Alward connected the forestry plan to the $87,000 provincial government cheque he handed to Mayor Bev Gaston for a new municipal park.
"Whether it's the investments in the mill here in Doaktown, or whether it's shale gas … we're saying yes to being able to develop our communities and families as we go forward," Alward said, "and because of that we're saying yes to reinvesting back in our communities."
The Irving mill in Doaktown employs more than 200 people and accounts for one-third of the village’s property tax base, Gaston says. The company has announced a $15 million expansion will begin next spring.
Irving promised more than $500 million in upgrades to its operations after Alward rolled out the forestry plan, which increases the allocation of wood on Crown lands and reduces conservation areas.
Environmentalists oppose the 25-year agreement because it allows a 20-per-cent increase in wood harvesting on public land. It also reduces the amount of land set aside for conservation.
Gaston acknowledges the need for conservation, but he says Irving has a good track record and there’s strong support for the deal in Doaktown.
"They're good corporate citizens, our biggest taxpayer, and I think in general the community is in favour of [the wood supply agreement] because it adds strength to our community," Gaston says. "We need that investment"
The final agreement with Irving, due July 1, still hasn’t been signed, though Alward says that should happen within days.
But Liberal Leader Brian Gallant has refused to say whether he supports the plan or the agreement.
Again this week, he said he’s unable to take a position because the government has kept information about the plan secret.
"We haven't seen the list of allocations, we haven't seen which areas will be protected and conserved, we haven't seen what scientific data they've based their decisions on," Gallant said. "We haven't even seen who's writing the forest management plans, if it's the government or the private sector."
That lack of a stance puts Gallant in an awkward position: in a place like Doaktown, he may be seen as insufficiently supportive of a popular initiative.
"There would be people here very unhappy to lose a $15 million investment," Gaston says. "I can’t see [undoing the agreement] as an issue a party would consider. I wouldn't want to make that decision."
But conversely, Gallant’s refusal to come out strongly against the deal has frustrated environmentalists, who want it blocked.
"I wouldn't vote for someone who can't tell me where he stands on these super-important issues," says Caroline Lubbe-D’Arcy, a member of the Council of Canadians who has organized public meetings against the forestry plan.
"Shale gas and this forestry thing are going to be major issues in this election, and a politician who's not willing to tell me where he stands, I definitely don't trust."
Gallant has promised a moratorium on shale gas development pending two major scientific studies, but he hasn’t said what his criteria would be for lifting the moratorium.
At the Liberal Party policy convention in April, delegates voted down a motion to put a four-year timeline on the moratorium.
NDP Leader Dominic Cardy has also said he can’t support or oppose the deal without more information. On Wednesday, Cardy said he would submit the agreement to a court review.