Liberal collapse in anglophone ridings sparks calls for party reform
15 Liberal candidates finished 3rd or worse in their ridings Monday night
Last year Jen Smith was president of the provincial Liberal association in New Maryland-Sunbury and on Monday as a candidate she finished second in the election in that riding — for the Green party.
"I'm very very proud of myself and pleased for coming in second place," said Smith.
"It's sad in a way to see because I love that (Liberal) party and I love the people but I saw this happening last year."
Smith's defection is part of what turned out to be a widespread collapse of the Liberal machine in English New Brunswick on Monday night.
The party finished third or worse in 15 anglophone ridings and lost its last two central and southern New Brunswick footholds in the legislature with defeats in Saint John Harbour and Fredericton North and a key upper St. John River valley seat in Carleton-Victoria.
Vote totals for Liberal candidates in the eight ridings in and around Saint John fell to a combined 10,694, one third fewer than 2014, the last election Liberals won in New Brunswick.
In the eight ridings in and around Fredericton, three Liberal candidates finished third and three came fourth with the combined vote total of all eight candidates dwindling to 9,549, barely half the support of 2014.
Further south in the once firm Liberal stronghold of Charlotte County, it was even worse news for the party as it polled just 1,127 votes in the area's two ridings, down a stunning 85 per cent from six years earlier.
Liberal troubles in the area were exaggerated by the controversy surrounding its candidate John Wayne Gardner in Saint Croix. Gardner was disavowed by leader Kevin Vickers mid campaign for old Facebook posts about straight and rainbow flags and bilingualism, but he remained on the ballot as a Liberal choice for voters to the end.
In all, Liberals who won five of the 18 Saint John-, Fredericton- and Charlotte County-area seats in 2014, and two in 2018, took none this year and posted an historic low 15.7 per cent of the vote. That was third behind the PCs and Greens.
The area has become such a political desert for the party the nearest Liberal seat to St. Stephen is now 230 kilometres north in Grand Falls or 260 kilometres east in Moncton.
Alex Scholten, who ran provincially for Liberals in 2018 in New Maryland-Sunbury and won double the votes the party managed in the riding on Monday, said there are significant problems the party needs to overcome.
"It was a disappointing night," said Scholten in a message to CBC News about Liberal results all through central and southern New Brunswick.
"Obviously the party is not selling what the constituents in those areas are looking for."
Scholten blames a breakdown in internal party communications in recent years between ridings and central leadership for some of the problems but also believes the province itself is becoming increasingly fragmented.
"The wants and needs of various parts of the province are not homogeneous making it extremely difficult for a party to generate support province wide," wrote Scholten.
Has party learned from results?
Smith left the Liberal Party in a dispute over its treatment of René Ephestion, who she feels was pressured to abandon his bid for the party leadership in 2019 by insiders to clear the field for Vickers to be acclaimed leader.
Ephestion filed paperwork to run for the leadership but was convinced to withdraw in April 2019.
Smith feels Liberals need to become more democratic internally and avoid recruiting and anointing new leaders, like Vickers, who party members have no role in selecting.
"I hope they learn a lesson out of this," said Smith. "They treated him like a rootin' tootin' gun slinging hero that would save New Brunswick and obviously he couldn't even secure his own seat. I saw this coming."
'A tough evening'
The good news for Liberals is as poorly as it fared in southern New Brunswick, it was the opposite in francophone ridings.
The party piled up huge winning margins and added to past vote totals in a number of places from Edmundston in the northwest to Caraquet and Shippagan in the northeast.
Those rising vote totals helped the party paper over some of the collapse it suffered in the south, and after Vickers announced his departure Monday night, a new leader will inherit the task of fixing whatever is wrong.
"It is a tough evening,"said Vickers. "Obviously we'll be in a building process.
"It's time for another leader to step up and take the party forward."