As New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs has refused to rule out a fall snap election, political watchers say the premier has reason to be cautious as he considers taking the province to the polls.
With a year left before the next scheduled election and a government that commands a strong majority of the legislature, it may seem strange that whispers of a fall snap election are on the lips of New Brunswick’s political watchers.
Yet in responding to those persistent rumours, Higgs has refused to rule out the possibility of going to the polls, saying uncertainty within his caucus may force his hand.
“As with all of the decisions I make as Premier, my focus is always on doing what is best for New Brunswick,” Higgs said in a statement earlier this week.
“The Legislature is scheduled to open a new session on October 17th. The question we face is will the focus be on delivering results for New Brunswickers or will it be 12 months of political drama causing instability and stagnation in government?”
According to JP Lewis, an associate professor of political science at the University of New Brunswick, if Higgs decides to take the plunge, the gamble may come down to survival. Recent polling has put vote intentions for the Liberals and PCs within the margin of error, making another mandate no sure thing.
But should Higgs decide to go to the polls and win, it would solidify his place as leader of the party.
“If Higgs wants control of his party, one way to do that is to lead his party into another election and hold onto a majority government,” Lewis said.
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“This would be an early election that isn’t necessarily driven by the PC government but by the PC premier.”
It’s been a turbulent year for the governing Progressive Conservatives after a review of school gender identity policy created a divide in the government caucus.
The review ultimately led to Policy 713 being revised to require parental permission for students to go by a preferred name or pronoun that is different than the gender they were assigned at birth. LGBTQ2 advocates have been highly critical of the changes, saying that it could put children in difficult positions or even endanger them at home.
Eight PC MLAs criticized what they called a lack of “process and transparency” in the review and six of those MLAs, including four cabinet ministers, ultimately voted with the opposition to ask the province’s child and youth advocate to review the changes.
The advocate’s review found the changes to be discriminatory and the Canadian Civil Liberties Association has already launched a legal challenge over the revised policy.
The turmoil also led to a push within the party to trigger a review of Higgs’ leadership that ultimately failed. Lewis said Higgs may want to consolidate his position at the head of the party, with many of the caucus rebels saying they won’t run if he remains leader.
“In doing that, I would imagine he would do it without the so-called rebels within the caucus and then have a greater stranglehold on the party,” he said.
Higgs has staked out ground as a defender of “parental rights” and even met with protesters as part of the 1MillionMarch4Children last week, which called for all LGBTQ2 content to be removed from schools. The protest drew crowds in each of the province’s three major cities and it’s possible that Higgs sees political opportunity in the “parental rights” movement, hoping that support will propel him to another mandate.
But University of New Brunswick political science professor Donald Wright says Higgs should be cautious if he plans to run an election based on Policy 713.
“Policy 713 has been talked about a lot, but I don’t think people are going to vote on that when they go into the ballot box. I think they’re going to vote on things like health care, things like affordability, things like access to rental housing,” he said.
“Those are the things they’re going to be concerned about, not whether a non-binary person is using a pronoun in Grade 3.”
A similar point was raised by PC MLA Daniel Allain earlier this week. Allain was one of the Tory rebels and was turfed from cabinet after voting with the opposition on a Policy 713-related motion.
“Policy 713 … the matter is before the courts. Let that process go forward; that would be the proper thing to do right now and we can always talk about Policy 713 later on,” he said.
“But right now New Brunswickers want to talk about inflation, housing and health care.”
Ultimately the choice whether or not to head to the polls remains with Higgs. He’s already answered months of speculation over whether he would stay on as leader for the next election, now he has to decide if now is the right time to roll the dice on his political future.