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New Brunswick Premier-designate David Alward speaks during a news conference at the Delta hotel in Fredericton, New Brunswick, September 28, 2010. His Progressive Conservative party had won a majority government on Monday. (PAUL DARROW/Paul Darrow /Reuters)
New Brunswick Premier-designate David Alward speaks during a news conference at the Delta hotel in Fredericton, New Brunswick, September 28, 2010. His Progressive Conservative party had won a majority government on Monday. (PAUL DARROW/Paul Darrow /Reuters)

New Brunswick voters kick Liberals out over resource control Add to ...

New Brunswick voters turfed Shawn Graham less than a year after the Liberal Premier provoked widespread anger with a plan to sell the province's power utility.

The young and charismatic politician, who squeaked to victory four years ago, had already riled the electorate with a series of controversial reform ideas, including changes to early French immersion and ferry service. He ran into a firestorm of criticism when he tried to address major debts at NB Power by selling it to Hydro-Québec.

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The terms of the sale were revised and the deal ultimately fell apart, but coming after a series of policy reversals, this left Progressive Conservative David Alward looking the more steady choice. On Monday his party romped to victory.

"I'm humbled, I'm honoured," Mr. Alward said as he arrived to address cheering supporters in his western New Brunswick riding.

"People had lost confidence in Mr. Graham. The fact that he had broken promises, he had mismanaged the finances of New Brunswick, he had made risky decisions. That certainly, I believe, was a referendum tonight on his leadership."

Mr. Graham, the first premier in the province's history to be defeated after only one term, said after the result that he would step down as party leader.

The Tories were elected in 42 of the province's 55 ridings. The Liberals took the other 13.

Mr. Graham's drubbing suggested the importance voters attach to resource ownership. Whether it is debates about royalties in Alberta or Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Danny Williams keeping his popularity high by insisting on a stake in the province's energy sector, this has long been a hot-button issue across Canada. And in New Brunswick, in spite of the utility's financial problems, residents were adamant that they retain control.

"Partly it's the culture of New Brunswick; NB Power is a major public concern," said Tom Adams, a private consultant specializing in electricity consumer issues who has monitored the province for more than a decade.

"You just can't point out another jurisdiction where electricity has so often been front-page news, the lead question in Question Period, the subject of public inquiries."

Polling done during the campaign showed that the NB Power issue was driving voters to the Tories. It was a backlash so profound that Mr. Alward didn't need to spend much time talking about what he would do to fix the utility's problems.

On many issues, the Tory Leader made a point of stressing that he would consult with residents. It was an effective way to remind them of unpopular reforms Mr. Graham had tried to push through and at times allowed him to avoid spelling out exactly what he would do if given the reins of power. For example, how he will handle the province's deficit, recently pegged at about $750-million, remains largely unknown.

Mr. Alward has promised to create a four-year plan to balance the books and run it by the auditor-general. He has also said he will cancel planned tax cuts for business and higher earners and look to eliminate wasteful government spending.

"I suspect that on some level, they hope there will be a more enlightened national policy that will work to New Brunswick's advantage," said political scientist Don Desserud, a professor at the University of New Brunswick-Saint John.

Observers are warning that painful choices are inevitable.

"The next four years is going to be tough for the premier, there's going to be a lot of political capital spent very quickly," said Donald Savoie, a professor of public administration and governance at the Université de Moncton and one of the region's most respected voices on public policy.

"They have to say, 'We have serious problems, we have to look at tax increases.'"

He said that the task facing the government should not be underestimated. Doing nothing about the financial situation would be a recipe for "disaster."

"As sure as I'm sitting here, they'll say we have to make difficult decisions," Prof. Savoie said. "Either they'll do that or the bondholders will do it for them."

New Brunswick PC leader David Alward, left, celebrates with supporters on Sept. 27, 2010 at his campaign headquarters in Woodstock, N.B.

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