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Politics Newly elected New Brunswick Premier Gallant faces tricky balancing act

New Brunswick Liberal leader Brian Gallant sports a smile in Caraquet, N.B. on Sunday, Sept. 21, 2014. Mr. Gallant’s win came after a dramatic night that stretched into the early hours of Tuesday morning – a glitch in voting machines caused election results to screech to a halt for two hours and threw the whole process into question.

Andrew Vaughan/THE CANADIAN PRESS

The New Brunswick Liberals won their majority government Monday in the rural and francophone regions of the province, where voters rejected the Progressive Conservatives' vision for prosperity through developing a shale-gas industry.

Liberal Leader Brian Gallant's win came after a dramatic night that stretched into the early hours of Tuesday morning – a glitch in voting machines caused election results to screech to a halt for two hours and threw the whole process into question.

Mr. Gallant, who at 32 will become the youngest premier in the country, leads a lopsided caucus of 27 MLAs, many of whom represent northern, rural and francophone ridings that are suffering economically. The Liberal plan for immediate job creation through massive government spending proved particularly attractive in those ridings.

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As election officials grappled Tuesday with the fallout of the fiasco, David Alward, the Progressive Conservative Leader and Premier, struggling to keep his emotions in check, conceded defeat and announced he was stepping down as leader but staying on as an MLA.

He also called on Elections New Brunswick to review every vote, saying it has a "responsibility to be transparent and accountable."

The Liberal win – New Brunswick becomes the fifth province in a year to elect a Liberal government – bodes well for the federal party and Leader Justin Trudeau, who campaigned with Mr. Gallant. There was other federal involvement – New Brunswick MP Dominic LeBlanc was one of the campaign co-chairs – and the polling was executed by Trudeau strategists. For the Tories and the NDP, meanwhile, the story is different. Stephen Harper and his Conservatives are only seeing red now in the three Maritime provinces – and federal NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair travelled last week to New Brunswick to campaign with provincial Leader Dominic Cardy. The NDP won no seats – and Mr. Cardy promptly resigned his position on election night.

The Tories won 21 seats, mostly in ridings around two urban centres – Saint John and Fredericton – and there was a historic breakthrough for the Green Party, which elected David Coon, the provincial Leader, in a Fredericton seat. Five of the eight ridings in and around Moncton, the third city in the province, went Liberal.

For Mr. Gallant, this means he will have to balance the tensions and pressures inherent between the cities and rural areas.

"That is going to be a big job for him to try to manage that," said UPEI political scientist Don Desserud, an expert on New Brunswick politics. "What is going to happen is there's going to be a lot of pressure from the regions, in particular in northern New Brunswick, that believe they have not been well-represented in previous cabinets."

Prof. Desserud says the population is moving from north to south – and there is "a lot of fear" in the north about that.

"They will demand and insist they have a strong representation in his cabinet … and that they are repaid for their huge support. Meanwhile, he's got to deal with the fact that the three major cities are also competing and saying 'what about us' … but what he is going to have to avoid, on the one hand, is any sense it looks like he is playing favourites and, on the other hand, that he is ignoring people who stood by him when things were not going so well for the Liberals."

A senior Liberal strategist says the team is conscious of their strong francophone support – but wants to make sure that the next four years are not defined along linguistic lines. In addition, they want to work hard to make bigger breakthroughs into the cities.

Mr. Gallant did not speak to the media on Tuesday. But, Mr. Alward, in his exit interview, told reporters that he felt good about his campaign in which he pushed one issue: the development of a fracking industry in the province as a job-creation measure.

Mr. Alward said that all of his candidates "believed in that message" and "no one went sideways. That was quite a feat in itself," he added.

From a regional perspective, Mr. Alward noted, that "there are regions that still have a lot of concern" and he challenged Mr. Gallant to find "the courage and do the right thing" by moving forward on shale-gas development.

"It certainly is an opportunity for our province," he said.

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Mr. Gallant has said he will place a moratorium on fracking until there is more study about its health and environmental implications. The strategist said the premier-designate does not feel "vulnerable" on the issue at all. He has some help – the Green Party MLA's position on fracking is even stronger. Mr. Coon would cancel exploration and production licences and his party would ban shale-gas extraction.

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