Political scientists weigh in on New Brunswick election call

Click to play video: 'Election announcement ‘both a surprise and not a surprise’: politics expert'
Election announcement ‘both a surprise and not a surprise’: politics expert
WATCH: As New Brunswick shifts into campaigning with the official call Monday, Callum Smith looks into how an election will look -- and what political experts are saying about the idea of a provincial election in the midst of a pandemic – Aug 17, 2020

Speculation about a snap provincial election has been ramping up in the past few weeks, especially in the last few days.

Talks of a stability agreement broke down Friday when the Liberals walked out, with Kevin Vickers, the leader of the party, likening the proposal and negotiations led by Blaine Higgs, the at-the-time premier and current Progressive Conservative leader, to having a gun to their heads.

This is the first provincial election in Canada to be called during the COVID-19 pandemic.

While New Brunswick does have a low virus-infection rate, Donald Wright, a University of New Brunswick political scientist, says Blaine Higgs will have to defend his decision to send the province to the polls during the pandemic.

Read more: New Brunswick poised to head to the polls as Liberals pull out of stability talks

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“We’ll see if he can over the next four weeks,” Wright says.

The official election call is both a surprise and not a surprise, he says.

The government is stable in the sense that there have been no recent seat count changes, and the all-party COVID-19 cabinet committee has seemingly worked well, he says. But of course, a general election has been on the radar as of late.

“I think there’s been a couple of signals for the last few days that the premier was anxious to call an election,” Wright says. “Perhaps he feels now is the time to get a majority government.”

At his own nomination convention earlier this month, Higgs said upcoming by-elections, which could change the seat count in a big way, and several threats from the Liberals to topple his minority government have been on his mind.

J.P. Lewis, an associate political science professor, says the parties could have internal polling to indicate further or more up-to-date information about potential success in an upcoming election.

Read more: N.B. premier Higgs confirmed as Progressive Conservative party nominee

Higgs climbed to the top of an Angus Reid Institute poll in May for premier approval rating across Canada, but Lewis says winning a majority won’t be an easy feat.

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“We have an electoral map that is dominated in the north by the Liberals and dominated in the south by the Tories,” Lewis says.

“And the Greens and People’s Alliance hold just enough seats to make those narrow windows towards a majority very difficult to achieve.”

Lewis says social media will likely be heavily relied on for parties to get their message out during this campaign.

Higgs said Monday P.C. candidates won’t be door-knocking due to COVID-19; an otherwise obvious part of any election campaign.

But Lewis warns voter engagement and voter turnout may be difficult for several reasons, including the potentially unpopular timing of this call.

“This might be finally when people are getting away and relaxing, and taking a break from the news,” he says.

Read more: Majority of New Brunswickers don’t support call for provincial election: study

Lorie Turnbull, the director of Dalhousie University’s School of Public Administration, says campaign or election issues are likely different because of COVID-19.

“If there had been no COVID, the election issues may have been very different,” she says in an interview from Ottawa. “But now, it’s going to be definitely public health, economic recovery, jobs, how we’re going to fortify the economy.”

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Turnbull says it’s an “acute” political situation for Higgs, who was expected to call three by-elections to fill two vacant, and one to-be vacant seat.

“Some people are a little bit hesitant, some people are a lot hesitant about going to an election during a pandemic,” she says. “Some are not at all; there’s a big range of opinions here.”

New Brunswickers head to the polls Sept. 14.

Click to play video: 'Higgs says Vickers was under a lot of pressure ‘not to get an agreement’'
Higgs says Vickers was under a lot of pressure ‘not to get an agreement’

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