Brian Gallant won't campaign for federal Liberals during election
New Brunswick premier stops short of endorsing Justin Trudeau, says he will work with any party
Liberal Premier Brian Gallant is acknowledging that his unpopular policies have made him a convenient target for federal Conservatives, who hope to use him to attack Liberal candidates in the looming election campaign.
And Gallant now says he will not campaign for those federal Liberal candidates nor appear at rallies with them.
Federal Tories and their provincial PC allies are continuing to crank up their criticisms of Gallant as the Oct. 19 vote approaches, a way for them to revive their own low poll numbers, the premier says.
"I may be lumped into that at one point," Gallant told CBC News.
"There's no doubt we've made some tough decisions and I wouldn't be surprised if they continue to try to use those tough decisions against anybody politically."
A federal Conservative television ad tries to tie federal Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau to Gallant's policies, pointing out the national party saw Gallant's winning campaign last year as "a template" for Trudeau.
"Justin just doesn't seem to get it that New Brunswick seniors are already being hit," a woman says in the ad, a reference to Gallant's controversial changes to how seniors pay for nursing home care.
Conservative MP John Williamson has also taken shots at Gallant for raising income tax rates for high earners, imposing a moratorium on shale gas development and refusing to rule out a sales tax increase.
"Are Liberals going to raise taxes, yes or no?" Williamson said in the House of Commons earlier this year.
Progressive Conservative MLA Dorothy Shephard says New Brunswickers "connect Gallant and Justin Trudeau as a team. So individuals are going to look at the Gallant government … and they're going to wonder if Justin Trudeau is in the same camp."
The attacks may be working: Trudeau's popularity is down, including in Atlantic Canada, and Gallant now says he will not campaign for federal Liberal candidates.
"Let's put it this way," Gallant said in a telephone interview from a meeting with other provincial premiers in Newfoundland and Labrador.
"I will have a meeting and I will talk to anybody within any of the parties who wants to discuss our priorities in New Brunswick. That could be any of the federal leaders."
He confirmed that means he won't attend federal Liberal rallies or knock on doors with the party's candidates.
"You may see me have a dinner, you may see me have meetings" with federal party leaders, he said.
"But other than that, that will be the only role I'll play as premier of New Brunswick."
Karen Ludwig, the Liberal candidate challenging Williamson in his New Brunswick Southwest riding, says she doesn't think provincial Liberals would be a liability for her.
"I would entertain anyone on the provincial level to come along with me" while campaigning, she said.
It's not unprecedented to see federal and provincial politics entangled during a national election.
In 1997, some Liberals felt that unpopular school closures by Frank McKenna's provincial Liberal government contributed to the defeat of federal Liberal cabinet minister Doug Young.
But this year, the Conservatives are more blatant in mixing the two.
Federal MPs have criticized provincial Liberal budget measures ranging from tax hikes to local courthouse closures.
And the TV ad on seniors' issues is a rare case of a federal party ad tailored to a relatively small slice of the electorate: New Brunswick has only 10 of 338 seats up for grabs in October.
The TV ad could also be seen as revenge.
Last year, New Brunswick Liberals aired an ad linking then-premier David Alward to Harper, saying the province couldn't handle four more years of the two leaders.
Gallant says that ad was fair because it critiqued Alward for not pushing back on federal policies.
"Here, they're talking about something that is completely within provincial jurisdiction," he says of the Conservative seniors' ad.
"It has nothing to do with federal policy. It has no impact or no bearing on the federal government."
Provincial PC MLAs have joined their federal allies in attacking Gallant.
When federal Conservative MP Rodney Weston announced $68 million in funding for the Port of Saint John last week, several Tory MLAs tweeted demands that Gallant ante up with provincial money.
The PC critique of Gallant was so insistent that Jim Quinn, the chief executive officer of the Port of Saint John, issued a statement saying the provincial government was "a strong advocate" of the port and that he understood why the province was taking its time reviewing the port's request for funding.
Gallant pushes back
In recent days, Gallant has started pushing back against the federal attacks.
That's a reference to a new formula for health transfer payments that will slow the growth of the funding that Ottawa sends to New Brunswick even as the province faces the higher cost of caring for an aging population.
Gallant told CBC News that to Ottawa, the imbalance may seem like "a way to force the provinces and the territories to make some decisions … and we're making some of them."
But that makes it ironic that Williamson and other federal Conservatives are "now criticizing us for making tough decisions to get our financial house in order."
Meanwhile, Ludwig echoed that, saying Williamson should have spoken out against the new health transfer formula that will take effect next year.
She also said Prime Minister Stephen Harper should meet more often with all premiers. The last time he met them as a group was 2009.
Despite the intensifying war of words, Gallant is carefully avoiding urging voters to cast ballots against the Harper Conservatives, stopping short of endorsing the federal Liberal campaign.
"I've made it very clear that we will work with any party in power," Gallant said.
"We will work with anybody who shares our view that there is a fiscal imbalance between the federal government and the provinces, and that will help us with our priority of creating jobs."
Despite Gallant's mix of pushback and caution — and despite his decision to keep his distance from the federal Liberal campaign — Conservatives seem determined to drag him into the race and make him an issue.
Voters "have to make that parallel assumption," Shephard says.
"Justin Trudeau is going to suffer at the hands of the Brian Gallant government."