Analysis

How Ottawa is reading New Brunswick's wild election result

The election results out of New Brunswick don’t offer much in the way of clarity. The party that got the most votes failed to win the most seats. No party won a majority.

Does the split result reflect momentum for Conservatives, or something else entirely?

New Brunswick Liberal Leader Brian Gallant addresses the media after meeting with Lieutenant Governor of New Brunswick Jocelyne Roy-Vienneau, in Fredericton on Tuesday, Sept. 25, 2018. (James West/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

The election results out of New Brunswick don't offer much in the way of clarity. The party that got the most votes failed to win the most seats. No party won a majority.

And the leaders of both the provincial Liberal and Conservative parties — separated by a single seat — are claiming the right to first crack at forming a government.

As it stands now, the Conservatives hold 22 seats, the Liberals 21. The Green Party and the new People's Alliance each won three. That means those smaller parties will play a pivotal role in deciding whether the province remains Liberal red or turns Tory blue.

Up in Ottawa, federal politicians are paying attention. Party strategists are analyzing the results for clues to how voters in Atlantic Canada might be leaning, and which issues might spill over into the next federal election a year from now.

Momentum, or stalemate?

Start with the Conservatives. MPs on the Hill were quick to jump on the promise by New Brunswick Tory Leader Blaine Higgs that he would join other conservative-leaning premiers in opposing the Trudeau government's national price on carbon.

"We see this as proof that New Brunswickers stand with Saskatchewan, Ontario and Manitoba and would fight against the prime minister's carbon tax," deputy Conservative leader Lisa Raitt told the Commons on Tuesday as her colleagues cheered.

"This election is evidence that the people of New Brunswick will not be bystanders. They used their voice and chose to fight back against an unfair tax."

New Brunswick Progressive Conservative Leader Blaine Higgs addresses supporters at his campaign headquarters in Quispamsis, N.B. on Monday, Sept. 24, 2018. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

Surprising no one, the reaction from the Liberals was more subdued. They've already seen Liberals swept out of power in Ontario. B.C.'s Christy Clark, an ally on pipelines and the need for a price on carbon, is also gone. Quebec's Liberal government could be next, with polls showing Premier Philippe Couillard faces an uphill battle to stay in office.

If New Brunswick Liberal Leader Brian Gallant is unable to form a government in New Brunswick, the Trudeau government's brand of cooperative federalism will be a much tougher sell.

That may explain why the federal minister responsible for New Brunswick is conceding nothing while Gallant tries to make a deal with the Greens to stay in power.

"Every vote counts," said Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Dominic LeBlanc. "We'll see what happens when the legislature reconvenes."

Either way, there's a visible crack in the Liberal fortress in Atlantic Canada.

The federal Liberals hold all 32 seats in the region.  Each of the four provinces has had a Liberal government since Justin Trudeau became prime minister.

That may be about to change, even though Gallant says he's going to carry on governing for now.

"The red wall in Atlantic Canada has been breached," said David McLaughlin, a former deputy minister in New Brunswick and chief of staff to former Conservative premier Bernard Lord.

'Time to get stuff done'

McLaughlin said he doesn't believe climate change was the deciding issue for voters in New Brunswick — but he's certain the results there indicate voters want something more tangible than what the Trudeau government is offering.

"People are voting for lower taxes, economic security. We saw that in Ontario with Doug Ford. And now we are seeing it in New Brunswick."

Liberal strategist Greg MacEachern cautions that Monday's results may only be the continuation of a pattern of one-term governments in the province. But he agrees there's a message there for the Trudeau Liberals.

"They need to convince Canadians that they are better off today than three years ago. They want to see the new infrastructure and more jobs in their community. They've done the aspirational. Now it's time to get stuff done."

There's always a risk of reading too much into a provincial election's implications for federal parties. But the outcome in New Brunswick, convoluted as it is, does offer a glimpse into what voters are thinking.

Big news for small parties?

The victory by three Green candidates on Monday is a good example. The party is now represented in four provinces — British Columbia, Ontario and P.E.I. are the others — and federal party leader Elizabeth May said the results in New Brunswick suggest the party's appeal extends beyond B.C., where she has her seat.

"Greens elected anywhere help Greens get elected everywhere," she said. "It tells Green voters they are not alone."

New Brunswick Green Party Leader David Coon speaks to the media after casting his vote at the Centre Communautaire Saint-Anne in Fredericton on Monday. (James West/Canadian Press)

The news is not at all positive for New Democrats. Despite a strong showing in the Ontario provincial election, where the party captured 33 per cent of the vote and now serves as the Official Opposition, the NDP was shut out in New Brunswick, winning only 5 per cent of ballots cast.

That's less than half the votes received by the Green Party.

MacEachern said that tells him the federal Liberals shouldn't assume that disaffected NDP voters in next year's federal election will automatically come to them. He said Conservatives need to take the same view.

The New Brunswick voters who marked their ballots for the People's Alliance — a party that opposes official duality and corporate handouts — may lean more toward the policies being promoted at the federal level by Maxime Bernier than those offered by Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer. The People's Alliance is in favour of things like ending duality for school busing, loosening bilingual requirements for paramedics, and eliminating the office of the commissioner of official languages.

After Monday, the people of New Brunswick weren't at all clear about which party ended up on top. Federal leaders in Ottawa may be just as confused.

About the Author

Chris Hall

National Affairs Editor

Chris Hall is the CBC's National Affairs Editor and host of The House on CBC Radio, based in the Parliamentary Bureau in Ottawa. He began his reporting career with the Ottawa Citizen, before moving to CBC Radio in 1992, where he worked as a national radio reporter in Toronto, Halifax and St. John's. He returned to Ottawa and the Hill in 1998.

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