The incoming president of the New Brunswick Liberal party says provincial unity is top of mind as the party goes about rebuilding after falling short in the 2020 election.
“The province was divided, the party was divided,” said Brian Murphy, a former Moncton city councillor and Member of Parliament.
“What I liked about the biennial was the outcome, in that a lot of our representation on the executive is in Anglophone New Brunswick, unheld New Brunswick … of course our held ridings and our caucus is largely northern and Francophone.”
Murphy said that the party needs to rejuvenate itself after being largely shut out of the three largest cities and capturing just 18 per cent of the vote in southern ridings.
“How that unfolds into specific policies is so not my job, not my mandate, but to make Liberals proud again to be Liberals,” Murphy said.
“I think of myself as a cheerleader, that really we need to be proud of what the Liberal Party has done and can do.”
Joining Murphy on the party executive is former Fundy Royal MP Alaina Lockhart as VP provincial, Robert Kitchen as VP policy, Theresa Blackburn as VP of communications and Helene Hebert as VP of membership.
Shaking up party executives is often a useful first step when evaluating after an election loss, according to St. Thomas University professors of communications and public policy Jaime Gillies.
“The Liberal party is going through a little bit of a post-mortem audit to figure out what they need to do in the next election to win province-wide,” Gillies said.
“Changing up the executive is a good place to start because that usually leads to changes in fundraising, recruitment and getting good candidates for the next election.”
That delegates elected an executive primarily from areas where they don’t hold seats shows the party sees making inroads in the south as a crucial piece of the rebuilding effort.
“The Liberal party is doing the correct steps in terms of trying to reach out to the broadest coalition possible,” Gillies said.
“Because if you stick with what you’ve done before and the mistakes that you’ve made, you’re likely to repeat them.”
The executive will be responsible for putting in place the process to select a new leader to replace Kevin Vickers, who resigned on election night after failing to secure his own seat. Murphy says the feeling in the party is that it would benefit from a well organized and highly contested leadership race.
Murphy says he’s not sure when a convention would take place, but says the first step will be to strengthen the party apparatus, fundraising and otherwise, from the riding level up.
“I think everybody agrees that we should have a really robust convention, congress, whatever it’s going to be,” Murphy said. “In order to do that we have to be a bit more organized, a bit more on our feet. I don’t know how long that’s going take, but I do think we need a little time to get ready, I do think we need some time to attract as many candidates as we can.”
“I think the voters, the Liberals, want to have a a good choice, a nice box of chocolates. That’s our job.”
The last Liberal leadership convention in 2019 saw Vickers be acclaimed to the position after two other competitors dropped out, not long after he joined the fray. JP Lewis, an associate professor of political science at the University of New Brunswick, says that’s something the party should learn from, and avoid.
“If you have an acclaimed leader, you’re taking away from the enthusiasm and recruitment opportunities from the leadership campaign and you’re betting the farm on that one person,” Lewis said.
What sort of leader the party looks for will also be indicative of the direction the party is heading, according to Gillies.
“The Liberal party knows that they have this strong base of support in some regions of the province. This is a difficult political calculation to make,” Gillies said. “Do you choose somebody from within caucus that is well known and known within the base communities that make up your support and hope that the other parties make mistakes, which is often the way that parties end up with majority governments. Or do you take another tact and find somebody new, some fresh face that becomes the face of the party?”
“They really have to find support and expand from where their base is.”
Right now, the party is being led by interim leader Roger Melanson. He says the one positive aspect of Blaine Higgs’ majority win last year is it gives the party time to focus on itself, without the threat of a possible election looming.
“One thing after the 2018 election that didn’t allow the party to refocus on itself was there was a majority government,” Melanson said.
“Of course we wanted to win in 2020, but we didn’t and there’s a majority government and we know exactly when the date of the next provincial election will be. We clearly have a roadmap and we have some runway to do what we need to do.”
Both Lewis and Gillies agree that the party has a relatively stable electoral foundation to build upon moving forward. The party won 34 per cent of the vote in 2020 and 37 per cent in 2018, largely driven by strong support in the northern part of the province.
“They have the luxury of really focusing on one area, because they do so well in another area. Not to say that they would ignore that area, but the hold on it is so strong,” Lewis said.
“It’s comparable to the Conservatives federally. When they’re preparing their strategies, they don’t really think about Alberta and Saskatchewan.”
But that advantage is not unique to the Liberals. The Anglophone Francophone and north-south divide is a historical feature of the political situation in the province that has been extremely pronounced in recent elections. The difference in the last election came down to PC wins and Liberal losses in the three big cities.
“Going into the 2020 election we were saying there is a clear path for either party and it runs through Moncton, Saint John and Fredericton,” Lewis said. “For the Liberals, if you win those seats back, suddenly you’re close to a small majority again.”
“It’s not like they’re that far off, but it’s still a clear challenge that they need to address.”
Gillies said the Liberals also have a chance to begin welcoming more diversity into the party, particularly after women made up just 20 per cent of the party’s candidates in the last election.
“There is a need for more female representation, women in leadership positions within these parties and that should be part of their audit as well,” Gillies said.
“Not only women, but Indigenous voices, people of colour and people from the LGBTQ that need to be part of the process. Not just in the Liberal party, but in all political parties in the province.”