Donald Wright is a professor of political science at the University of New Brunswick and the author of Canada: A Very Short Introduction.
Pandemic or no pandemic, Blaine Higgs wanted a majority. And so the Progressive Conservative Premier of New Brunswick went to the Lieutenant-Governor on Aug. 17, asking her to dissolve a legislature that had 20 PCs, 20 Liberals, three Greens, three People’s Alliance, one independent and two vacancies.
A lot of people wondered why Mr. Higgs called a general election during a global health crisis when he could have called the necessary by-elections and continued to govern with the support of the People’s Alliance. It was a question that he could never really answer.
But he could point to the Atlantic bubble, one of the safest places in North America. Indeed, New Brunswick has only two active cases. And if Premier Higgs can’t take all of the credit – closing the Canadian-American border was a federal decision – he can take much of it. He followed the advice of public-health officials, he offered clear and consistent communication, and he didn’t rush to reopen the economy.
A steady hand at the wheel, Mr. Higgs turned the election into a referendum on managerial competence: “Up To The Job” was a PC tagline. With a lead in the polls, he faced an inexperienced and, by implication, not-up-to-the-job leader of the opposition, Liberal leader Kevin Vickers, best known to Canadians as the sergeant-at-arms who participated in the 2014 shooting of a gunman in the House of Commons.
But Mr. Higgs also faced three smaller parties and the reality of vote-splitting on both the right and the left: the People’s Alliance, a populist party promising common sense and low taxes, the Green Party, and the NDP, which hasn’t elected a member since 2003 and is now on life support.
The campaign itself wasn’t particularly interesting. Even the journalists called it boring. At times, it was easy to forget that there was even an election. Because gatherings are limited to 50 people or fewer, partisan barbecues and cheap hot dogs were impossible, and candidates generally avoided posing for selfies and knocking on doors. Instead, they relied on lawn signs and social media to identify and track their vote, the challenge of every candidate in every election since the dawn of democracy. For their part, the Greens hosted pop-up events. And “Emma from the Progressive Conservative Party” asked via text if Premier Higgs could count on our support.
When the Liberal leader visited the Fredericton Boyce Farmers Market, he wore a mask and kept his distance. It was difficult to watch: entourage in tow, Mr. Vickers followed the directional arrows more than he met with voters. For a man who needed to introduce himself to a province that didn’t really know him, campaigning in the middle of a pandemic was frustrating, to say the least.
If there were no major gaffes, there were no major issues, either. But there were lots of promises, most of them retail. Still, there was a frank and genuine recognition on the part of all the parties that, going forward, New Brunswick must develop a coherent set of policies on food security in a pandemic world. The supply chains held this time, but they may not next time. And there will be a next time.
Through the determined efforts of the feminist movement, reproductive rights also informed the election when the Liberals, after decades of hoping the issue would go away, finally agreed to fund abortions performed in a private clinic. The PCs, however, angrily refused, defying the Canada Health Act and daring New Brunswickers to take the province to court. (Mr. Higgs once described abortion as yet “another degradation to our society.”)
Meanwhile, voters trusted Elections New Brunswick to run a safe election. Mail-in ballots were sent to anyone who wanted one, and record numbers voted at the advance polls. Providing masks, ensuring physical distancing and cleaning contact surfaces, returning officers ran a tight ship.
At the end of the day, Mr. Higgs got what he wanted when, half an hour after the polls closed, it was clear that his party would form a majority government with less than 40 per cent of the popular vote. In all, 27 Progressive Conservatives, 17 Liberals, three Greens and two People’s Alliance members were elected. Mr. Higgs won because he could credibly say that he had steered the province through the worst of the pandemic, something Mr. Vickers, who failed to win a seat and resigned as leader, couldn’t say.
Chalk one up for New Brunswick. Following public health guidelines, it became the first province to hold a general election in the pandemic. Ironically, the results make it the last province to respect the Canada Health Act when it comes to women’s reproductive rights.
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