New Brunswick·Analysis

What does a PC sweep of Miramichi byelections mean for government's future?

After months of grim news and dismal public opinion polling, Premier Blaine Higgs whooped and clapped at a festive byelection victory celebration Monday night in Miramichi.

While some chanted 'Six more years,' others urge caution when interpreting Monday's results

Premier Blaine Higgs celebrates with Réjean Savoie,, the PC winner in Miramichi Bay-Neguac. (Jacques Poitras/CBC)

"Six more years," they chanted.

After months of grim news and dismal public opinion polling, Premier Blaine Higgs whooped and clapped at a festive byelection victory celebration Monday night in Miramichi.

Tories appeared rebooted and renewed after grabbing Miramichi Bay-Neguac away from the Liberals — to the point that some loudly predicted the premier will lead his Progressive Conservative party to another four-year majority mandate in 2024.

The flipping of Miramichi Bay-Neguac and the holding of Southwest Miramichi-Bay du Vin made it "a good night for the Conservatives," says University of Moncton political scientist Roger Ouellette.

Jacques Poitras is the CBC's provincial affairs reporter.

But it's too soon to conclude that the premier's troubled standing with francophone New Brunwickers will be fixed with one victory in one riding.

"I think in Neguac it was because they had a really strong local candidate," Ouellette said, referring to Réjean Savoie, who represented the same area from 1999 to 2003.

Higgs's involvement with an anti-bilingualism protest party three decades ago, and his occasional tone-deafness on language issues, has made him a hard sell in francophone parts of the province.

Seat at the governing table

Savoie's win in a riding that is more than one-third francophone gives the premier a second Acadian MLA and his first in the province's north. 

It will tweak, if not completely overhaul, the PC party's ability to deliver its message in those areas.

Savoie broke into traditional Liberal areas of support, including his hometown of Neguac.

The village's mayor, Georges Savoie, is already predicting that the new PC MLA will become a minister before the end of the government's mandate.

Savoie will become a cabinet minister before the next general election, predicts Neguac Mayor Georges Savoie. (Jacques Poitras/CBC)

"I think that with the very few francophones that they have, I'm pretty sure that Réjean will have something before the end of this government." 

That prospect, and the ability to bend the ear of government decision-makers, was top of mind for voters, the mayor says.

"Being on the government side means having an MLA who will be able to talk to ministers, different cabinet ministers, and he'll be there at the table. … That's what we need." 

Pondering pandemic polling

The two wins are all the more remarkable given the lows the PC government has suffered over the last year.

Last July's ill-fated decision to end all COVID-19 restrictions led to a spike in cases in the fall and an admission that the move was, in retrospect, a mistake. PC support plunged in polls last fall.

The government was also slow to respond to soaring housing costs and renovictions and to the rising cost of living.

A one-year rent cap and a one-time benefit for low-income people led the opposition Liberals to hammer them for doing too little, too late.

Defeated Liberal candidate Hannah Fulton Johnston said while it may not have translated into votes, affordability was an issue on the doorsteps during the campaign. (Jacques Poitras/CBC)

A recent Narrative Research poll showed 52 per cent of respondents dissatisfied with the government compared to only 40 per cent satisfied. The PCs and Liberals were tied for voter support.

And an Angus Reid Institute poll put the premier's approval rating at 33 per cent.

Yet there was no palpable anti-government anger that manifested itself at the ballot box on Monday. Only 42.3 per cent of eligible voters cast ballots in Miramichi Bay-Neguac. In Southwest Miramichi-Bay du Vin, the figure was 43.8 per cent.

"Literally at every door, people were talking about the price of gas is going up, inflation is up 9.3 per cent, and seniors on fixed incomes, those aren't going up," said defeated Liberal candidate Hannah Fulton Johnston.

"I don't think the [affordability] message didn't get through. Maybe it just wasn't thought of as a campaign issue, I guess. But affordability is definitely an issue." 

Blackville resident David Donahue, who tried to rally opposition to local government reform with his "Divide Entity 22" campaign, instead encountered apathy.

Even amalgamations, a touchy subject in the area, wasn't enough to stop voters from supporting the PCs. (Jacques Poitras/CBC)

"I don't think people realized what this whole forced super-amalgamation of Entity 22 is," he said.

Donahue, who describes himself as "far right," said he voted Liberal to register a "spite vote" against the merger.

But few others got on board. PC candidate Mike Dawson won the riding with 52.1 per cent of ballots cast.

"The people have the right to choose and they did," Donahue said. "So all the best."

Lessons for opposition parties

For the Liberals, the only glimmer of good news was that their vote went up in Southwest Miramichi-Bay du Vin, thanks in part to the near-death of the People's Alliance.

Fulton Johnston says her campaign attracted new supporters who'd never voted Liberal before.

"A lot of people said that it feels alive again here. I can't speak for the rest of anglophone New Brunswick, but here we had a groundswell of support." 

Voters in the Miramichi area have chosen two new MLAs to send to Fredericton. Provincial affairs reporter Jacques Poitras takes a look at the results, and political scientist Jamie Gillies shares his thoughts on the outcome.

But in Miramichi Bay-Neguac, the Liberal vote dropped from their winning result in 2020, and the Green Party scored their best-ever result in the riding with 15.2 per cent — a tally that would have given the Liberals enough to win had it gone their way.

Ouellette said with the Greens doing that well, the Liberals will find it hard to win, and party members should ponder its two byelection defeats as they prepare to elect a new leader in August.

"Which candidate will be able to, at the next general election, connect with the anglophone electorate while maintaining at the same time their place with francophones?" 

But Ouellette is also warning the PCs that they can't presume easy wins in northern, Acadian ridings are a given solely based on Savoie's success.

A mid-mandate shuffle could see the new MLA join the cabinet, but former Alliance leader Kris Austin could also be included — and that might alienate francophones suspicious of his position on bilingualism.

"Higgs and the Progressive Conservatives have to work hard if they want to regain the francophone vote in the next general election. It would not be a good signal if Kris Austin were a part of the next cabinet." 

On top of that, the government has yet to issue its response to recommendations from a 10-year review of the Official Languages Act, another litmus test for francophones. 

It means that — Monday's triumphant breakthrough notwithstanding — predictions of six more years of Higgs's PCs in power are still a bit premature.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jacques Poitras

Provincial Affairs reporter

Jacques Poitras has been CBC's provincial affairs reporter in New Brunswick since 2000. He grew up in Moncton and covered Parliament in Ottawa for the New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal. He has reported on every New Brunswick election since 1995 and won awards from the Radio Television Digital News Association, the National Newspaper Awards and Amnesty International. He is also the author of five non-fiction books about New Brunswick politics and history.

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