The New Brunswick Progressive Conservatives are considering extending the leader’s courtesy to Kevin Vickers in an upcoming byelection in Shediac Bay-Dieppe.
“We will work with the local riding and they’ll make that decision at the end of the day,” Premier Blaine Higgs told Global News at a party nomination convention in St. Stephen on Saturday.
The leader’s courtesy is a parliamentary convention where parties allow a leader without a seat to run unopposed in a byelection. The idea is to allow a party leader entrance to a legislative body so they can participate in public debate and has been seen in other places across the country, including at the federal level.
The Green Party extended the courtesy to Jagmeet Singh for a byelection in Burnaby South last year. The federal Liberals considered doing the same, but ultimately decided to run a candidate.
This would be the first time the convention would be seen in New Brunswick.
But political scientist Tom Bateman says Higgs’ motivation could have more to do with strategy than any warm feelings towards his Liberal counterpart.
“To extend this courtesy is in a way to make a virtue out of necessity and it may indeed free up the Conservatives to focus their attentions on St. Croix which is a much more interesting and complicated race,” Bateman said.
Shediac Bay-Dieppe is one of the safest Liberal seats in the province, making the southern New Brunswick riding of St. Croix all the more important for the governing PCs who hold a slim minority grip on power.
“The legislature is very tight, we have a minority government. If the Liberals can split the vote between the Alliance and the Conservative candidates, come up the middle and win, then everything changes,” Bateman said.
“We could have a change in government or an election, so the stakes are pretty high in St. Croix and the government knows it.”
Higgs insisted that the decision, which he says will be made at the riding level, would be to allow Vickers a chance to join the other leaders in the house and prove his expressed appetite for collaboration.
“Here’s a case where the leader is not in the house,” he said. “Here’s a case where the leader wants to get in the house and demonstrate commitment and conviction to work for a better New Brunswick, not just say it in a headline because it would be strategic during this byelection, but actually have an opportunity to demonstrate it.”
When asked, Higgs disputed the idea that the party would forgo running a candidate in the Liberal stronghold of Shediac Bay-Dieppe in order to focus on St. Croix, but did acknowledge any PC candidate would face an uphill battle in the northern riding.
“I think we probably have the capability to focus on two ridings at the same time,” he said, “but we know also the odds would be that that will be a tough riding.”
In an interview with Global News earlier this month, party executive director Rick Lafrance was more forthright about the attentions of the PC party.
“Traditionally parties kind of let the leader run unopposed, but that’s yet to be confirmed,” he said. “However, that is a Liberal-held riding, so we are concentrating on St. Croix.
“We’re going to look at that and concentrate on that one right now. After this nomination, we’ll look at Shediac Bay.”
Lafrance said the importance of the St. Croix byelection is well known to the party faithful. He said they are already fielding calls from people interested in volunteering from around the province.
“We’ll have the extra resources there, absolutely,” he said. “Right now we’re getting calls pretty much on a regular basis from volunteers right across the province saying, ‘Hey, you know what, we’d like to spend some time in St. Croix.’”
The battle in St. Croix is shaping up to be an interesting one. The riding, and it’s predecessors, have been won by the PCs five out of the last eight elections, including by Greg Thompson in 2018 who represented the riding until his death over the summer.
So far, only two parties have confirmed candidates for the yet to be scheduled byelection.
On Saturday, former journalist Kathy Bockus was acclaimed as the PC candidate for the riding and Rod Cumberland has been confirmed as the the candidate for the People’s Alliance.
Cumberland is a wildlife biologist who has worked for the party as a researcher and previously taught at the Maritime College of Forest Technology. He alleges he was fired by the school for his outspoken opposition to glyphosate spraying, while the school says he was let go do to his behaviour towards students.
“That southwest part of the province is very fertile ground for conservative minded candidates and the Alliance candidate Rod Cumberland is a strong personality, he’s an excellent speaker, I think his account of things will resonate quite strong with voters in St. Croix,” said Bateman.
“He could win the whole thing, which would complicate matters for the conservative government. … If he does well, but not well enough to win then the Liberal candidate may have a crack at it and then we’re into a new ballgame.”
The Liberals will hold a nomination convention on Feb. 8, and former area MP Karen Ludwig has already announced her intention to run.
Bateman says the combination of a strong People’s Alliance candidate and a familiar face vying for the Liberal nomination could create a tricky situation for the PCs.
The Greens have yet to announce a candidate for the riding.
Higgs has until March 10 to set dates for the two byelections, but due to a loophole in the Elections Act there is nothing governing when they must be held by.