Shale gas development divides voters, CBC poll finds
Job creation, economy are the 2 most important issues for voters, CBC/Radio-Canada poll says
New Brunswickers are divided on their overall support for the development of a shale gas industry, even as large numbers of people are both concerned about the environmental impact of the industry and believe it will bring long-term wealth to the province, according to a CBC/Radio-Canada poll.
The development of a shale gas industry has proven to be a wedge issue in the first half of the election campaign as David Alward’s Progressive Conservatives have emerged as staunch defenders of the industry, while the Liberals, NDP and Green parties have all articulated differing levels of opposition to the industry.
The CBC/Radio-Canada poll, which was conducted by Corporate Research Associates, found 49 per cent of people completely or mostly supported the exploration and development of shale gas compared to 44 per cent who said they mostly or completely opposed the industry.
While New Brunswickers are relatively evenly split on their support or opposition to the industry, that isn’t the case when asked about their concern for the environment and the economic impact of the industry.
The poll found that 81 per cent completely or mostly agree that regulations are required but they still worry about the environmental impact of shale gas and 54 per cent say they completely or mostly agree that the exploration and production of shale gas will have negative environmental impacts that will outweigh the economic benefits.
The environmental concerns of the shale gas industry shared by many New Brunswickers are not dampening their economic hopes for the same industry.
When asked about the importance of the shale gas industry to the province’s economic future, 61 per cent said they believed it was extremely or moderately important compared to 31 per cent, who said it was not very important or not at all important.
Further, 67 per cent said they completely or mostly agreed that the shale gas industry would lead to long-term economic benefits for the province.
The poll demonstrated that opinions have hardened in the last three years on the divisive issue.
In 2011, only 30 per cent of respondents said they were "completely" sure of their position either for or against shale gas, a number that has risen to 42 per cent in the latest poll with 18 per cent completely in favour of gas and 24 per cent completely opposed.
J.P. Lewis, a political scientist at the University of New Brunswick in Saint John, said the polling numbers are unlikely to cause any of the parties to revisit their campaign strategies on shale gas.
"Even with these numbers, the parties have already set their way forward with the Tories betting their whole campaign on it, the Liberals being cautious and the NDP saying no," Lewis said.
"So with a split, I don't think the parties would be changing their course. Both the for and against will say they are within the margin of being in the majority [of opinion]."
Lewis said the high number of people who think shale gas will have harmful environmental consequences and the number of voters who feel it will have valuable economic benefits can be chalked up to the many questions that still hang over the industry.
"In this day and age, there is an understanding that with any of these things, there is going to be a risk," he said.
Corporate Research Associates surveyed 800 people on the telephone between Aug. 19 and 31. The poll’s margin of error is plus or minus 3.5 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.
Debt levels are a top concern
The diverging opinions on the shale gas issue are important given the worries voters share over the province’s concern over the debt and growing the economy.
The economy and job creation concerns were the top-ranked issues that will be motivating voters when they head to the polls on Sept. 22.
The poll found 18 per cent rated job creation and employment as the most important issue for them followed by 14 per cent who cited the health of the provincial economy as the top issue.
Health care and honesty/integrity were tied for third with 10 per cent of those polled saying those were the most important factors in deciding who they were going to vote for in the election.
New Brunswick’s jobless rate in August dipped to 8.7 per cent, from 10 per cent in July. Job creation has been a dominant theme for each of the political parties in the campaign.
While the unemployment rate is moving down, there is a significant concern about the province’s ballooning debt.
The poll discovered 83 per cent say they are extremely concerned or moderately concerned with the public debt.
The debt stands at roughly $11.6 billion and is set to rise to $12.1 billion in 2015. The debt stood at $10.1 billion in 2012.
The provincial government is paying $685 million to service its debt in 2014-15, which is the fourth highest budget expenditure after the departments of health, education, social development and operating the general government.
The provincial government’s deficit stands at an estimated $391 million in 2014-15, down from $564 million in 2014.
When asked how voters would like to see the deficit and debt situation handled, 54 per cent of respondents said they wanted to see the civil service cut and 37 per cent backed a reduction in government programs and services.
Meanwhile, 33 per cent of those surveyed supported raising the HST to deal with the province’s financial woes and 24 per cent said they thought income taxes should be hiked.
The Progressive Conservatives have pledged to continue their plan to reduce the deficit if re-elected. Quispamsis candidate Blaine Higgs, the province’s finance minister, said in July that the province’s economic recovery was “at risk” if the Liberals were elected.
Liberal Leader Brian Gallant has committed to slashing $250 million from the budget in the second year of a Liberal mandate. The cuts would come from a strategic program review.
The NDP has promised to cut the number of cabinet ministers and find $300 million in spending reductions.