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Politics Energy East pipeline could be a deciding election issue in Saint John

Wayne Long, the Liberal candidate in Saint John-Rothesay, is solidly behind the Energy East project.

Stephen MacGillivray/The Globe and Mail

In this down-on-its-heels Maritime city, the potential of Energy East, the proposed TransCanada pipeline that would carry Alberta crude to the Irving refinery here, is looming large in the election campaign, and creating some unlikely tensions and allegiances.

It is pitting the Liberal candidate, Wayne Long, against his leader, Justin Trudeau, and seems to have made a Conservative partisan out of one of the most senior members of the usually non-partisan Irving family. The NDP candidate, Angela-Jo (AJ) Griffin, meanwhile, is flagging environmental concerns, and refuses to support it until she has more information.

The fight to represent Saint John-Rothesay is a tight one, mirroring what is happening nationally.

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Traditionally, it is a Conservative stronghold, and one of only two seats in the country to remain Progressive Conservative when all others were wiped out in the 1993 federal election.

The mostly white riding, which includes Saint John, a city tied with Toronto for the highest rate of child poverty, and its wealthy suburb, Rothesay, home to many of the Irvings, has only ever elected five Liberals in the past 80 years; all the rest were Tories.

New Brunswick has 10 federal seats, of which eight are now Conservative.

Although Liberals expect to come out of the province on election day with more than the one seat they now have, they are not as bullish as their Nova Scotia neighbours. That's because Liberal Premier Brian Gallant's brand is not as strong as is that of his Grit colleague, Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil.

As a result, federal Liberal fortunes in Nova Scotia are being buoyed, in part, by Mr. McNeil's popularity. Liberals there are talking about "annihilation" of the Conservatives.

In New Brunswick, that is not the case.

But, on the issue of the pipeline, Premier Gallant's position is strong and unequivocal. He wants it for his province. It means jobs and prosperity.

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Like the Premier, Mr. Long, who is well-known in the community as president of the successful Saint John Sea Dogs, a Major Junior hockey team, is solidly behind the project.

"People are very emotional about the pipeline on both sides of the fence," says the 52-year-old entrepreneur. He is on the same side of the fence as his Conservative opponent and the incumbent, Rodney Weston.

But Mr. Weston was given a boost by the high-profile visit of his leader, Stephen Harper, to the Saint John refinery last month. It didn't hurt, either, that Arthur Irving, chairman of Irving Oil, appeared on stage with Mr. Harper at the invitation-only event.

"And we thank him very much for coming back here so soon. Come often. You're always welcome," Mr. Irving said, noting that Mr. Harper visited the site two years ago.

Mr. Irving's presence at such a partisan political event was unusual enough that it was reported in the local media. And, according to the local CBC, Mr. Harper used the opportunity to take shots at the NDP and, especially, Mr. Trudeau for not enthusiastically supporting the pipeline. "You know, Premier Gallant, Frank McKenna, Liberals, they all support it – but not Justin," said Mr. Harper.

This irks Mr. Long. Approval from an Irving carries weight in the province – and he doesn't have that kind of support from his leader for the project.

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He describes Mr. Trudeau's position on the pipeline as "much more cautious" than his. He says he understands that, as Mr. Trudeau is running to be Prime Minister of the entire country.

"I'm not trying to be a difficult candidate. Not at all; it's not my style," he says. "I'm a total team player. I would dare say that a strong Liberal Party is going to want strong opinions…"

But, if elected, he warns he will fight every day in the Liberal caucus for Energy East – "Wayne Long is 100 per cent behind the pipeline," says Mr. Long. "It's a life-blood for us."

The NDP, meanwhile, is not giving the pipeline a free pass.

"Right now, to commit to a pipeline is really irresponsible because we don't have all of the information about the safety," says NDP candidate AJ Griffin, adding that the Conservative government has gutted the environmental checks and balances. The 43-year-old Saint Johner says she's in favour of jobs but "everything has to be done safely."

"So show us it's going to be done safely. Show us it's going to produce the jobs," says Ms. Griffin, who is holding her own in this race. She notes that not everyone is in favour. For example, she recently met with a group of nuns who are concerned, she says, about the environmental implications of the project.

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Mr. Long, however, remembers the mid-1970s when Saint John and Halifax were the same size. It's not even close now – Halifax is booming.

"We have such a great city. We're a port city. We're the oldest incorporated city, but we're a city on the decline. I'm not afraid to say it," he says. "We need to turn this city around."

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