New Brunswick political leaders kicked off a tight election race Thursday with a blitz of voter-friendly pledges, photo opportunities and coffee-shop visits. But even the best retail politicking cannot obscure staggering financial problems that will hang like a millstone around the necks of politicians every time they make a promise until the vote on Sept. 27.
New Brunswick's deficit was most recently pegged at $749-million and the debt has risen from $6.7-billion to $8.3-billion in four years. The province's auditor-general has projected the debt climbing another 33 per cent in the next four years.
Fixed-election rules mean the unofficial campaign has long been under way. But the leaders of the two main parties have so far shied away from specifics on how they would deal with this crushing burden.
In an interview Thursday, Progressive Conservative Leader David Alward declined to respond when asked if the deficit could be reined in without tax increases or spending cuts. He said "a responsible and comprehensive" economic plan would come early in the campaign.
"It is not going to be easy ... so we need to be responsible," he said. "It's going to take time to bring the deficit down. We're committed to doing it over a four-year period."
Liberal Leader Shawn Graham, who has led the province since 2006, said Thursday that details were forthcoming on how a second mandate would lead to 20,000 new jobs. Asked whether tax increases or spending cuts were necessary for the province to regain its economic footing he responded by accusing his opponents of advocating these measures.
"The approach that we believe can be achieved is by growing the economy and by creating the jobs to pay for the revenues that we need to return to balanced budgets," he said.
Don Desserud, professor of political science at the University of New Brunswick in Saint John, voiced frustration that what he called "trivial" matters have been deflecting campaign attention away from the dire financial picture.
"The parties have not responded and said what they're going to do, probably because they don't have a clue and don't want to get into that," he said. "I think they have no idea of how they're going to deal with it. I think they just hope something will happen."
At dissolution, the Liberals held 32 seats and the Tories 21. There were two vacancies.
A Corporate Research Associates poll released Thursday as part of its regular assessments of Atlantic Canadian politics showed that the Grits have pulled back ground they lost during Mr. Graham's failed bid last year to sell the provincial power utility to Hydro-Québec.
The poll showed the Liberals as the choice of 41 per cent of respondents, compared to 36 per cent who backed the Tories. It had a margin of error of 3.4 per cent, 19 times out of 20.
"This will be a very tight election," said CRA president Don Mills. "It could go either way and the election [race]matters."
Prof. Desserud said the numbers reflect the fact that neither leader has demonstrated the sort of steady management and prudence voters are seeking.
"The incumbent party is not the party of stability and [Mr.]Alward has not been able to establish himself as an alternative," he said. "The known is rash and reckless and the unknown is unknown. So they've got four weeks to settle that."