New Brunswick

Liberal win in Saint Croix byelection would trigger provincial election, Higgs says

Premier Blaine Higgs says a byelection win for the Opposition Liberals in the riding of Saint Croix would lead to an early provincial election and a risk of the Liberals returning to power by the end of 2020.

Premier cautions Saint Croix against splitting vote between PCs and Alliance, ending in possible Liberal win

Premier Blaine Higgs said losing the Saint Croix and Shediac Bay-Dieppe ridings to the Liberals could lead to a full provincial election. (CBC)

Premier Blaine Higgs says a byelection win for the Opposition Liberals in the riding of Saint Croix would lead to an early provincial election and a risk of the Liberals returning to power by the end of 2020.

Higgs says he will warn voters in the riding against splitting their votes between his Progressive Conservatives and the People's Alliance, a split that could help the Liberals win the seat.

While he wants to avoid going to the polls in 2020, a Liberal win in Saint​ Croix "would probably put me there. I wouldn't have a choice.

"That is obviously in the back of my mind."

Liberal victories there and in another expected byelection in Shediac Bay-Dieppe would shift the standings in the legislature.

The Liberals and Greens would have a combined 25 seats to 24 for the PCs and the Alliance.

That would make it unlikely the PC minority government could win confidence votes and pass legislation even with the support of the Alliance.

"The decision [for voters in Saint Croix] is probably not so much 'Do I support the Alliance over the PCs' or vice versa," Higgs said in a year-end interview. "It's 'Do I really want to take a chance of the Liberals getting back in government?'"

Higgs's comments raise the stakes for the Saint Croix byelection, which he hasn't called yet.

The riding stretches from the village of McAdam to the Bay of Fundy, including the towns of St. Stephen and Saint Andrews.

It has been vacant since the death of PC MLA and cabinet minister Greg Thompson last September.

Will set date by March

Higgs has until March to set a date for the vote. He plans to schedule the byelection for Shediac Bay-Dieppe at the same time.

He said his choice of a date will be based in part on the possibility that losing both ridings would lead to a full provincial campaign.

The Saint Croix byelection will be the first time PC and Alliance candidates campaign against each other while the parties are co-operating in the legislature.

Normally a candidate for the governing party argues during a byelection campaign that he or she will be in the best position to influence government decisions.

But with the Alliance propping up the Tories in exchange for a role in decision-making, the Alliance candidate will be able to make the same case in Saint Croix.

While you can go chasing what might be the possibility of a majority, what we do know right now is we have the possibility to influence the outcome of the province for the better.- Blaine Higgs, premier

Asked how the PCs will counter that argument, Higgs invoked the risk of a vote split between the two parties.

"What we're going to both have to face is the risk of a Liberal candidate or a Green candidate winning, particularly a Liberal candidate," he said.

This isn't the first time Higgs has threatened an early election. In December he said he'd consider a bill on essential services in nursing homes to be a confidence matter. The bill passed with the support of the Alliance.

But this warning is different because it is aimed at voters, not a handful of MLAs in the legislature.

Despite the high stakes, the premier says he doesn't plan to back away from tough decisions because of the by-election, including planned health reforms to be announced early in the year.

"We're not going to shy away from them. I hope to be able to communicate in a way that people understand the rationale behind everything we do. I would never suggest that means everyone will like it. It's just that they'll understand why." 

The premier insisted that he doesn't want an early election, even if some of his advisers believe he'd likely win a majority.

He said so far he's been able to get most of his agenda passed by the legislature, and given how polls can change during a campaign, that would be at risk if he called an election.

"I'm kind of a believer that a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush, that old adage," Higgs said. "While you can go chasing what might be the possibility of a majority, what we do know right now is we have the possibility to influence the outcome of the province for the better.

"If it becomes unworkable, it's a different story."

Vote split warning is 'old argument'

One such unworkable outcome would be a defeat in Saint Croix. The PCs won the riding easily in 2018 but four years earlier, the Liberals won the riding, despite a larger combined PC-Alliance vote.

The Alliance plans to run high-profile former wildlife biologist Rod Cumberland in the byelection.

Alliance Leader Kris Austin brushed off Higgs's talk of a vote split, saying that argument "has been used, it's been done, it's an old argument."

He said his party doesn't only draw support from unhappy PCs, and its success in the last election has forced the Higgs government to be more accountable. 

"I've always said you should vote for the best candidate and the best policies that line up with your views."

Another variable in the Saint Croix byelection is the Canadian Union of Public Employees, which has vowed to get involved in the campaign and work against the PCs as a response to Higgs's rejection of large wage increases for nursing-home workers.

Yet another factor could be complaints by some members of the PC riding association that a potential nomination candidate was rejected by a party vetting committee without explanation. The association president resigned earlier this week.

'Environment prompted the resignation' 

Association president Vernon Card resigned this week, telling fellow PC members in an email that he was questioning the "positive characteristics" of the party.

He said in an email Wednesday that while the rejection of candidate Lorraine Gilmore Peters was "concerning, it was small compared to the overall environment. This environment prompted the resignation." 

He would not do an interview and said he would elaborate in a blog post in late January or early February.

The next provincial budget will be introduced March 10, the same month Higgs plans to call the by-elections--though he is free to pick a date months later.

The PCs have scheduled their convention to nominate a candidate for Jan. 18. The Liberals have not set a date for their convention.

The other riding where a byelection must be called, Shediac Bay-Dieppe, became vacant when former premier Brian Gallant resigned last October. It's expected to stay Liberal.

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