New Brunswick’s opposition parties were hoping voters would punish the province’s Progressive Conservative party for calling an election in a pandemic. Instead, Premier Blaine Higgs was rewarded Monday with his first majority government.
With minority governments in British Columbia, Prince Edward Island, Newfoundland and Labrador – and at the federal level – political leaders of all stripes were watching Mr. Higgs’s gambit closely.
The PC Leader leveraged strong approval ratings over his response to the pandemic, and benefited from a lull in COVID-19 cases, in a province without any outbreaks similar to those seen in other parts of Canada. Timing was also key in his victory, opting for an election with the shortest possible campaign allowed, just 28 days.
“There’s a window for public health, but there’s also a window for the COVID honeymoon. And we know that some of those are closing very quickly,” said J.P. Lewis, a political scientist at the University of New Brunswick in Saint John.
“I would imagine all the people about to run an election, they should take a look at this.”
The Premier was able to convince voters he was the steady hand during the pandemic, while blaming the Liberals for walking away from an all-party deal that would have given him power for two more years. This allowed Mr. Higgs to claim he was forced to call an election.
His snap election gamble paid off, giving him a gain of seven crucial seats in the legislature, allowing the Premier to focus on reopening the economy while pursuing his fiscally conservative agenda without compromising with the opposition.
But while the leader will be under pressure to reform the province’s economy, health care network and municipal property tax system, what he actually intends to do with his newfound power wasn’t well-defined during the campaign.
“I don’t think Mr. Higgs has been very clear on what he needs that stability for,” said Tom Bateman, a professor of political science at St. Thomas University in Fredericton. “What will a majority Higgs government be like? It's not entirely clear."
His opponents warn a Blaine Higgs government will push through cuts at rural hospitals, limit abortion access and deepen urban-rural and language divisions in a province where many francophones are wary of cuts to bilingual services and potential reductions in French requirements for jobs in the public service.
Daniel Allain, who took Moncton East for the Tories, figures to have a prominent role in cabinet as the only Acadian member of a government largely snubbed by French-speaking voters. Nine women also won seats as PCs, which allows Mr. Higgs a chance to achieve something close to gender parity in cabinet.
A former engineer with a managerial style of governing, the Premier will have to work hard to soften his tendency to act alone rather than consult if he wants to heal some of those divisions, said Mario Levesque, an associate professor of politics and public policy at Mount Allison University in Sackville, N.B.
“He wants to do major structural reform, but it’s how you go about it. You can’t be like a bull in a china shop,” he said. “There are ways build bridges, but is it in his DNA?”
Mr. Higgs said he’ll continue to work with the all-party cabinet committee that has been dealing with the pandemic response, but the big question is how long he’ll see a need to co-operate, Dr. Lewis said.
The New Brunswick election also showed you can win without conventional campaign methods such as door knocking, large rallies or meeting people in person. This was a COVID-19-era campaign that largely played out at a distance, on people’s TVs and phones, and through social media.
Mr. Higgs made few significant promises and didn’t release his party platform until four days before the vote. More than 200,000 people had already cast ballots in advance polls by then. More than 66 per cent of eligible voters cast ballots, just below the 67 per cent turnout in the 2018 election.
The Tories’ campaign focused on the rebounding economy, with strong housing sales, tourism traffic and job recovery numbers that have led all of Canada. They also pledged to grow the province’s population by 10,000 immigrants annually, improve rural internet access and raise salaries for early childhood educators.
Emergencies such a pandemics generally benefit the sitting government, Dr. Bateman said. Even though New Brunswick only had three active COVID-19 cases on election day, the virus still muted debate on other issues.
“COVID kind of crowds out clear thinking about all other issues,” Dr. Bateman said. “And because our numbers were so low, holding an election at this time wasn’t seen by voters as risky move, even though the opposition parties tried to paint it that way."
The Liberals meanwhile, who swept nearly all ridings in the predominantly French-speaking north but won four fewer seats than 2018, now need to plan a leadership race to replace Kevin Vickers. He resigned after failing to connect with anglophone voters or secure his own seat.
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