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New Brunswick Premier Shawn Graham (Brian Atkinson/Brian Atkinson for The Globe and Mail)
New Brunswick Premier Shawn Graham (Brian Atkinson/Brian Atkinson for The Globe and Mail)

Attempted sale of NB Power hurting Liberals in provincial poll Add to ...

Public anger at Shawn Graham's botched attempt to sell New Brunswick's power utility is driving opposition support, a new poll suggests.

The Abacus Data Poll, done over the weekend, shows that public outrage that flared at the time remains a powerful political undercurrent among New Brunswickers, who are preparing to vote on Sept. 27.

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"The failed deal seems to be driving Tory voters," Abacus Data Inc. CEO David Coletto said Monday, noting that the overall numbers remain close. "It's becoming an issue in an already divided electorate that could push one party, the Tories, to victory."

The poll found that 38 per cent of respondents were opposed to selling NB Power to Hydro-Quebec and said the failed deal was important to their vote. The Progressive Conservatives were the beneficiary of engagement on the issue - 55 per cent of those who both opposed the deal and said it would impact their vote were supporting the Tories.

Mr. Graham, the first-term Liberal Premier, stunned the province last fall when he announced that most of NB Power would be sold to the Quebec utility for $4.8-billion. He argued that ratepayers would benefit and the utility's debt would cease to be a threat to future generations. The deal sparked a surge of opposition.

"NB Power is the utility that New Brunswickers love to hate, until you start suggesting that maybe the province should do away with NB Power," said Tom Adams, a private consultant specializing in electricity consumer issues who has monitored the province for more than a decade. "Very rapidly the debate switched from New Brunswickers griping about problems with NB Power to a vociferous reaction. People were not that interested in the details of what Hydro-Quebec was offering. They simply did not want to hear it."

In the face of persistent popular discontent, the original agreement was replaced in January with a $3.4-billion deal that would have transferred fewer assets. But opposition continued and the latter deal fell through in March.

Don Desserud, a professor of political science at the University of New Brunswick-Saint John, said the public reaction was strengthened by a series of earlier issues, some major and some trivial, that built the impression the Liberals were erratic.

"It created a climate of incredible uncertainty, that this government was doing things that were reckless and without forethought," he said, noting that this attitude meant the Liberals weren't helped much when the deal died.

"Going back on the plan is certainly better than going forward on it. But it doesn't help because people think 'what're you going to do next?' "

The open anger faded over time and it appeared that Mr. Graham had ducked lasting damage. A poll at the start of the current campaign showed that the Liberals had clawed back support they lost last fall. And a party formed out of the public opposition to the sale, the People's Alliance of New Brunswick, is barely registering in the popular vote.

But the issue has not disappeared. Don Mills, president and CEO of the Halifax-based polling company Corporate Research Associates, said its findings show the Tories stealing Liberal support in the populous south of the province.

"There are a lot of people who work for NB Power in that area," he noted. "We're speculating at this point, but that is the big issue that could impact people in that part of the province."

Despite the undercurrents, observers say the leaders on the hustings have rarely mentioned the NB Power sale. Tory Leader David Alward has appeared reluctant to hammer too hard on the issue, and Mr. Graham has tried to brush it away with admissions that he needs to do better.

Prof. Desserud believes the issue is the elephant in the room, so ingrained in the political psyche of many voters that it no longer needs to be mentioned.

"It's such a powerful force in this province they don't even want to debate it," said the political scientist. "It's beyond debate."

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