New Brunswick Votes·Opinion

Brian Gallant struggles to articulate campaign message

Liberal Leader Brian Gallant struggled to communicate a vision for what he will do as premier and who he is in the first week of the campaign, acccording to St. Thomas University journalism professor Michael Camp.

STU's Michael Camp says NDP Leader Dominic Cardy had the best week of the campaign

Liberal Leader Brian Gallant is " heading for trouble" if he can't start communicating his own message, writes Michael Camp. (Marc Grandmaison/Canadian Press)

Should we believe what the polls are saying?

A Corporate Research Associates survey this summer said Brian Gallant and the Liberals were more than 20 points ahead of David Alward and his Progressive Conservatives.

The last time the Liberals went into a campaign with that kind of head start was in 1987, when Frank McKenna swept the Hatfield Tories out of power, winning every seat in the province.

Could Brian Gallant do that for the Liberals on Sept. 22? After his performance this past week, I doubt it. 

I’m not sure how to interpret what the polls are saying, but I think something else is going on in the mind of the average voter in New Brunswick - and it’s anything but affection for either the Liberals or the Conservatives.

But let’s go back to 1987 for a moment. 

I was a reporter at the time, riding the campaign bus with McKenna. I remember the big crowds and the ecstatic applause every time McKenna hit the stage. You knew something big was coming down the pike.

David Alward has been promoting his strategy of natural resource development in the first week of the campaign. (CBC)
There was some push and pull going on, of course. The Hatfield government had been in power for 17 years and never in the long history of New Brunswick politics had the slogan, “It’s time for a change” had so much truth to it.

McKenna’s timing was perfect.  But so was his sense of what the voters wanted. And in spite of his unshakable lead in the polls, McKenna was careful not to take victory for granted. 

In fact, he came across as an underdog. 

By the end of the campaign, every voter in the province knew that ‘Frank’ was raised on a pig farm in Apahoqui, where he did the chores before sunrise, tried hard in school and played good hockey with second-hand skates.

McKenna’s early life gave some punch to his political message, which never changed. He was all about the dignity of work. 

He said the same thing every time he spoke, “Elect me and I’ll create jobs.”

As articulate as [Gallant] is — in both official languages — there’s something about him that doesn't come across. No matter how much he talks, I’m still not sure what he’d do as our next premier.- Michael Camp

Everybody got the message, and in 1987, almost everybody voted for it.

Now it’s 2014, and jobs in this part of the country are even harder to find. The Tory government is unpopular and voters are in a sour mood.

But Brian Gallant is no Frank McKenna. 

Even if the polls all point to a big Liberal sweep, I don't believe it.

As he demonstrated again this week, Gallant can’t seem to get it across to the public what he stands for, not even when he throws a few hundred million dollars into the effort.

I often ask people what they think Gallant is all about and I never get the same answer. 

As articulate as he is — in both official languages — there’s something about him that doesn't come across. No matter how much he talks, I’m still not sure what he’d do as our next premier. 

And to me, a politician who can’t express his own message is a politician heading for trouble.

He has some time to work this out.  But eventually people will stop listening. 

With his giant lead in the polls, maybe someone’s telling him to run out the clock and dodge the big issues. If he's going to win anyway, why get tangled up in commitments?  Why take a clear stand on difficult issues?

NDP Leader Dominic Cardy scored a rhetorical victory this week by comparing Gallant's $900-million infrastructure fund to the former Liberal government's Atcon scandal. (CBC)
But if that's the case, it’s a bad strategy.

I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt and assume that he dropped that gigantic spending promise this week in an effort to associate his name and his party with something tangible.

If elected, we now know that Gallant would spend $900 million on roads, bridges and other “infrastructure.”

Maybe that will give people something to say when they talk about Gallant and the Liberal campaign, but it made an easy target for the other leaders.

Dominic Cardy, leader of the ‘new’ NDP, called the infrastructure promise “crazy and scary.”

Do the math, he said.  That’s more than a thousand dollars for every man, woman and child in the province.

While he was knocking the Liberal leader, Cardy was giving himself an opportunity to rebrand the NDP as the kind of party that would be careful with your money. Fiscal conservatism?  From the NDP?

But Cardy was just warming up: “We’re talking about a program that is supposed to create the same number of jobs Atcon was supposed to create,” Cardy said. “At 12 times the cost.”

Oops. Atcon. Anyone remember that name? 

I expect we’ll be hearing it quite often during the campaign. No doubt, every party leader except Gallant will be doing everything possible to keep the memory of the Atcon fiasco alive – and to remind voters that the Liberals are as good as anyone at flushing taxpayer dollars down the toilet.

It was interesting to see Cardy aiming at Gallant, rather than focusing on the premier. I guess that says something about what it means to be the early frontrunner in an election campaign.

It also reminded me that Cardy has made something of a specialty out of recruiting disillusioned Liberals to his team, including two former Liberal MLAs.

Camp says why not put Green Party Leader David Coon in the legislature "where the people in power have to listen?" (CBC)
While Gallant struggled to explain his platform to the voters, Alward had some breathing room last week to promote his, “Say Yes” strategy — as in, say yes to fracking, say yes to the west-to-east pipeline and presumably to say yes to the forestry deal he cooked up in a private meeting with the Irvings as a “job-creation” initiative.   

That’s the Tory plan. If you want to say yes to it, you’ll know what to do on Sept. 22.

So much for the PCs and the Liberals.

But wait a moment — does anyone really believe that either of these parties has managed the province’s finances in a competent way in the past two or three decades? 

If you’re sick of the ping-pong nature of New Brunswick politics, maybe this election will give you some relief. Maybe it’s actually possible that voters will consider voting for a different party, as subversive as that may sound.

To put the question seriously, what would be wrong with having some new voices in the legislature?

The way things are going, some people might wonder why they should respect the long tradition of voting either Conservative or Liberal. 

Maybe people will consider something other than the usual choices. Maybe, given the performance of the Tories and Liberals over the past decade, it wouldn’t be such a bad idea to try a third party.

Keep your eyes on the NDP — they may be worth considering.

It wouldn’t be the first time in Canada a party went from nothing to something big. 

Last week, Cardy put in the best performance of the party leaders. 

And his vision of the NDP as a party that can be serious in the way it handles your money, and still have a social conscience, is quite appealing. Let’s see if he can keep it going. 

As for the Greens, if any province needs a strong voice to speak for the environment, this one does.

Or if you want to think of it another way, David Coon is going to keep talking no matter what — so why not put him in a place where the people in power have to listen?


Michael Camp

Journalism professor

Michael Camp is an associate professor and acting chair of the Department of Journalism and Communications and Public Policy at St. Thomas University in Fredericton. Camp is a former reporter with CBC News and is a regular contributor to the political panel on CBC Radio’s Shift.


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