First week of N.B. election sets the tone for campaign

A voter sits behind a voting screen while marking their vote during the New Brunswick provincial election in Dieppe, N.B. on Monday, September 24, 2018. The Canadian Press/Darren Calabrese

The first week of New Brunswick’s election campaign has given parties a chance to begin selling themselves to the electorate and has established the tone of what’s to come.

The incumbent Progressive Conservatives have spent the beginning of the campaign preaching the stability of the status quo, often re-announcing projects and initiatives that were already underway during their time in government.

That includes the Day 1 announcement on mental health initiatives, the business action plan and New Brunswick First government acquisition policy and even the extension of the tourism rebate.

“So what we rolled out is just a continuation of the work we’ve been doing for 18 months and here’s where we see the opportunity to make things change and we will be doing that this fall and as it needs to be enhanced we will make it part of future budgets,” PC Leader Blaine Higgs said of the mental health announcement.

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The only new piece of policy is the promise to increase rural broadband speeds to 100 mbps within three years and to pursue a province-wide 5G network. But even the former, or some iteration of it, has been a goal of many previous New Brunswick governments.

Higgs has also promised not to announce any spending not included in this year’s budget during the campaign, with the exception of pandemic-related spending. For future budgets, Higgs said investments will be made as needed, but his goal is to avoid raising taxes and to continue moving the province towards fiscal sustainability.

“Going to the future budgets, my goal is no new taxes, because I think we need to continue to allow people to see New Brunswick as a safe place to invest and an economical place to invest,” Higgs said at a campaign stop in Saint Andrews on Saturday.

“What I can tell you is that this campaign is not going to put next year’s targets or next year’s opportunities over the top. I will not throw away our recovery plan for New Brunswick to get re-elected.”

The New Brunswick Liberals are being led through the election by rookie politician Kevin Vickers.

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For much of the first week, the party has looked to appeal to those disgruntled by the PC government. The party announced two star candidates who have clashed with Higgs over the last two years.

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On Tuesday morning Vickers announced former PC deputy premier Robert Gauvin would run for the Liberals in Shediac Bay-Dieppe. Gauvin quit the Tories earlier this year over the now-cancelled health-care reforms that would have seen the emergency rooms of six rural hospitals closed overnight.

“Robert took a courageous stand against Blaine Higgs’ government’s drastic and divisive decision to close rural emergency hospitals,” Vickers said on Tuesday.

“It’s this kind of commitment and the concern for the rights of francophones and rural New Brunswickers that exemplifies the Liberal Party of New Brunswick.”

At a campaign stop in Saint John on Wednesday, Vickers announced Nursing Home Workers Union head, Sharon Teare, as the candidate for Saint John-Lancaster, where she will run against incumbent social development minister Dorothy Shephard. Teare was often front and centre during bitter contract negotiations between unionized nursing homes and the province.

A strike was barely averted by a court injunction in 2019 which spawned a lengthy legal battle over nursing home workers’ right to strike, which the New Brunswick Court of Appeal eventually upheld.

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Higgs also staked his government on amendments to the Essential Services in Nursing Homes Act that placed ability-to-pay conditions on binding arbitration which the union labelled an attack on labour.

“Seniors’ voices matter. I have proven that I am a voice for those who cannot speak for themselves. Seniors, not only in my community but around New Brunswick, need a voice to speak for them,” Teare said on Wednesday.

When it comes to policy, Vickers has largely tread on similar ground as the PCs. On Wednesday he said he would partner with the federal government to stimulate the production of small modular nuclear reactors (SMRs), a goal already set out in a memorandum of understanding signed by New Brunswick, Ontario and Saskatchewan earlier this year. The promise to boost the agriculture budget by $5 million to increase the production of food in New Brunswick is also similar to the PC promise to create a multi-year project to improve the province’s local food supply.

Vickers has also promised to reverse PC cuts to the department of tourism’s budget and to appoint an Indigenous cabinet minister.

New Brunswick’s two newer third parties have spent much of the week scrambling to get candidates nominated. This is the first snap election either has experienced.

“We’ve never experienced a snap election before, we’ve always had a fixed election date and four years before that we knew when it was going to be, so there was time to get your candidates in place and all the things you have to do to get ready,” Green Leader David Coon said at an event on Friday.

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Neither party has the large financial apparatus of the two traditional parties. To put it into perspective, the Greens and People’s Alliance brought in $76,183 and $30,082 respectively in fundraising last year.

In comparison, the Liberals brought in $241,459, while the PCs raised a party leading $638,954.

The NDP raised $37,009.

Without the financial muscle of the major parties, both the Greens and the People’s Alliance appear to be focusing on the areas where they think they can make some noise.

Coon spent two days this week campaigning with Fredericton North candidate Luke Randall who is running against Liberal incumbent Stephen Horsman.

Policy-wise, the Greens announced that they would funnel revenue from the carbon tax to offset operational loses incurred by transit services due to the pandemic, the creation of a department of rural affairs, as well as a phased-in guaranteed livable income that would start for people living with disabilities.

The Alliance made only one announcement this week, saying they will push to have vehicle registration moved from annually to every three years.

Leader Kris Austin says the party has been focused on vetting candidates and plans to run a slate of about 30. The focus will be on ridings they think they have a shot in.

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“Our strategy this time around is more focused on areas where we know we have support and areas where we know there’s an appetite for a different set of politics and change,” he said.

The NDP has yet to hold any sort of event. Interim leader Mackenzie Thomason sent out a press release on Tuesday morning saying Higgs should be “ashamed” for calling a snap election in the midst of a global pandemic.

Nathan Davis, the party’s communications director, says the party is working on getting candidates in place and hopes to run a full slate of 49.

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