New Brunswick Votes·Analysis

Smaller parties seek breakthrough in New Brunswick election

The NDP, Green Party and People’s Alliance will all be contesting ridings around New Brunswick in search of seat inside the Legislative Assembly, a feat that has proved extremely difficult in the province’s political history.

Political analyst says two-party system built on patronage

The NDP, Green Party and People’s Alliance will all be contesting ridings around New Brunswick in search of seat inside the Legislative Assembly, a feat that has proved extremely difficult in the province’s political history.

NDP Leader Dominic Cardy saw his party's support peak in May 2013. (CBC)
The Liberals and Progressive Conservatives have been the only parties represented in the New Brunswick Legislature since 2005.

Third parties may be reluctant to admit it publicly, but Tom Bateman, a political scientist at St. Thomas University, said it would be an important moral victory for each of them to simply increase their percentage of the popular vote on Sept. 22.

At the start of the campaign, Bateman said it will be difficult for the smaller parties to secure a seat in the legislature.

“At this point the safe money would be to say no. but things actually do happen in campaigns,” Bateman said.

Geoff Martin, a political science professor at Mount Allison University, said he is giving smaller parties a bit more of a chance at winning a seat.

"I’d say it is better than 50-50, it is better than it has been [in recent elections]," he said.

"But for me the real question will be how much difference will it make?"

Dismal electoral track record

Third parties have had a dismal track record of being elected in significant number and then having staying power in New Brunswick politics.

The election of Green Party Leader David Coon would be the most disruptive to the province's electoral system, according to Geoff Martin, a political scientist at Mount Allison University. (CBC)
The Confederation of Regions Party elected eight MLAs in the 1991 campaign but imploded in the following four years and never elected another MLA.

The NDP has been able to win single seats in the legislature, but support for the party has never rooted in more than one riding at a time.

Mostly recently, Elizabeth Weir held the riding of Saint John Harbour from 1991 until her retirement in 2005. But Weir was never able to translate her personal popularity into an additional seat.

Despite this decades-long track record of electoral futility, there have been signs of hope for smaller parties.

The NDP saw its popularity jump to 27 per cent in May 2013, which put the party within the margin of error of the Progressive Conservatives for second place.

The party's support slipped to 16 per cent in May, which is the same level from May 2010. In that campaign, the NDP won 10.3 per cent of the popular vote, but was shut out of the legislature.

STU’s Bateman said the best chances for an electoral breakthrough for a third party will likely come in urban areas. Both the NDP and Greens are running their leaders in the Fredericton area and Saint John voters have elected New Democrats in the past.

“I don’t think the [two-party] system is going to break down quickly but the third parties would love a beachhead, they want to get someone articulate and effective into the legislature,” Bateman said.

The NDP is also buoyed by high-profile candidates in several ridings. Former Liberal and Progressive Conservative MLAs Bev Harrison, Kelly Lamrock and Abel LeBlanc have all agreed to run for the NDP.

People's Alliance Leader Kris Austin is running in his second election. (CBC)
Mount Allison's Martin said the problem that each of the smaller parties will have is whether they can consolidate enough support in a particular riding or group of ridings to actually win.

"It’s probably more possible in the case of the New Democrats but I think one of the issues that has to get raised is the whole question of a third party as a label versus a genuine alternative," he said.

"You are seeing across the country, there is a lot of people … asking if the NDP is a significant enough alternative, if the NDP did win seats."

Martin said Dominic Cardy's NDP have moved closer to the Liberals. He said it is unclear whether electing a NDP MLA in 2014 would be as significant as it was in 1991 to 2005.

"The job then of that successful candidate or candidates would be to prove they could make a difference in the way that Elizabeth Weir made a difference," he said.

System built on patronage

Bateman said the two-party system, which has seen the Liberals and Progressive Conservatives, swap the keys to the premier’s office for decades is firmly entrenched, primarily because of patronage.

Elizabeth Weir, the former leader of the NDP, sat in the legislature from 1991 to 2005. (Government of New Brunswick)
“We have a very rich tradition of patron-client relations in New Brunswick politics, ‘You vote for me and I give you stuff, whether it is jobs or other largess when we get into government,’ and that has worked out,” Bateman said.

“That heavy patronage system has supported a two-party model quite well. Not to say it won’t break down, but it hasn’t yet.”

Progressive Conservative Leader David Alward said he believes it is important to have third parties represented in New Brunswick politics in order to have a robust debate on important issues.

Alward said he believes the lack of electoral support for smaller parties is more to do with voters being satisfied with the existing system.

“New Brunswickers have been blessed by where we live and we don’t always like change a lot,” Alward said.

“It is like that old pair of shoes, we are comfortable. To some degree that is part of it, but times are certainly changing. But it is important to have parties with different visions for the province.”


Daniel McHardie

Digital senior producer

Daniel McHardie is the digital senior producer for CBC New Brunswick. He joined in 2008. He also co-hosts the CBC political podcast Spin Reduxit.


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