David McLaughlin was a PC campaign strategist in New Brunswick, a chief of staff to former premier Bernard Lord, and a deputy minister in the provincial government.
Political spectacle combined with electoral fiasco to grudgingly produce what seemed to have been preordained at the outset: a Liberal majority government. But this was no smooth road to victory. Underneath, fault lines are gathering within the province on language and nationally on energy.
The day after, serious questions remain about the voting tabulations and management by Elections New Brunswick that caused collective political coronaries for every party. For two unexplained and unacceptable hours, the vote count stopped like a clock whose spring had wound down, at the closest of all election outcomes. Both the Liberals and the Progressive Conservatives were virtually tied in seats. And there it sat until the final onrush of AWOL votes found their way onto the counting boards giving Liberal leader Brian Gallant a modest six-seat majority in the legislature.
Whether the final disposition winds up in counting the votes manually, as the PCs are insisting, or electronically, as the Liberals are claiming, it is not clear the final outcome will change much. It would be wise and healthy for the province's democracy for the Liberals and the PCs to co-operate on an independent review of Election NB's conduct and reassure voters that, in fact, every vote was fairly and accurately counted.
Despite the drama, no party has much to brag about in this election. Mr. Gallant becomes premier with the worst popular vote total of any New Brunswick leader in history. For their part, the PCs posted their worst showing since 1995. The NDP garnered their best showing provincially but their leader resigned before the night was out. Meanwhile, a concerted showing in one Fredericton riding by the Green leader gave them one seat with half the popular vote as the seat-less NDP. Meanwhile, the popular vote fell to its lowest level ever.
If this election had an issue, it was shale gas fracking. Only the PCs favoured it. A majority of New Brunswickers voted for parties opposed to developing this resource. That does not bode well for the province's economic future.
The PC government labored under deep dissatisfaction with some of its policies. Continuing fiscal restraint and recent tax hikes eroded its popularity, making re-election a difficult gambit. Nevertheless, the spirited campaign of Premier David Alward sufficiently galvanized supporters to give them a better seat count than expected at the campaign's beginning.
But underneath, for both main parties, lie problems. Francophone New Brunswick voted Liberal in every seat but one; and with big majorities and significantly higher voter turnout than the provincial average. Where the PCs won, they did so with more modest majorities and either at or below the provincial turnout level.
Anglophone New Brunswick gave its support mostly to the PCs. Perhaps a quarter of the new Liberal caucus hail from predominantly Anglophone ridings.
Language has long been the most difficult political issue in New Brunswick. The PCs will need to figure out how to rebuild the bi-cultural coalition first formed by Bernard Lord so successfully in 1999. The Liberals will need to determine how to broaden their appeal beyond safe northern, eastern, and Francophone seats.
National lessons are also apparent.
Federal Liberals will point to New Brunswick as the fourth provincial win in a row since Justin Trudeau became leader. With Newfoundland and Labrador strongly leaning Liberal as well, Atlantic Canada's 32 federal seats become dicier for the federal Conservatives, requiring gains elsewhere to offset any losses. New Brunswick's eight federal Conservative party seats make it the third-most Conservative province after Alberta and Saskatchewan. They can ill-afford to lose them.
The NB Liberal platform carried a revealing whiff of old-style tax and spending that appears to be a road-test of both the federal and Ontario Liberals. Higher taxes on the '1 per cent' combined with more infrastructure spending and a more leisurely path of deficit reduction, seems to be the new Liberal norm. Will it be Justin Trudeau's recipe?
Finally, there is energy and shale gas development. Alberta and Ottawa can breath a sigh of relief that the Energy East oil pipeline to the Saint John refinery from western Canada enjoyed bi-partisan support. The newly-minted Green MLA will challenge that but cannot stop it.
But new, domestic energy development in the province offered by shale gas appears set to join Nova Scotia in a frozen moratorium. Despite the clear referendum question posed by Mr. Alward's PCs on fracking, it was not enough to unite much more than a third of the electorate on this wedge issue.
For Prime Minister Stephen Harper's own controversial oil sands and energy development agenda, this might give some pause. Gathering enough of your committed voters on one side of the question cannot outweigh a majority of other voters if they simply want a new government.