For a place that’s usually ignored, New Brunswick received plenty of attention for last week’s election result. With the two main parties practically tied and two diametrically different smaller parties potentially holding the balance of power, the drive-through province is looking very European, where hung parliaments are routine. The who’s-on-first scenario is a political science dweeb’s delight, with several acts to follow. But in the meantime, there were other intriguing story lines emerging from the election.

Penetrating the Red Wall

Nearly everyone was quick to note that the election marked the first successful foray against Prince Justin’s Atlantic Canada Camelot. Following close on the Liberal victory in Nova Scotia in the fall of 2013, Brian Gallant’s Trudeau-assisted 2014 win set up two more Liberal provincial victories and the federal election sweep in 2015 – creating a realm governed by four provincial premiers and 32 Liberal MPs.

It was inevitable that Camelot’s walls would eventually be breached, and New Brunswick – where the Conservatives ruled the roost both provincially and federally until 2014 – was most vulnerable. Trudeau was a mainstay of the successful Atlantic Canada provincial campaigns from 2013 to 2015 but was scarce in this one. He did help out with a couple of federal “pilot projects” – some tweaks to EI for seasonal workers and the promise of $75 million for seniors’ care, as reported last spring. In Trudeau’s absence, Liberal nobility in the personages of Gallant’s fellow Atlantic Premiers rode in to shore up the barricades at a last-minute weekend rally.

Hoisted on his own petard

Although inadequate, the efforts of outside Liberals were not entirely wasted as Gallant’s party emerged Monday night with the most votes – 37.8 per cent of those cast. But despite getting 22,500 votes more than Blaine Higgs’ second place Conservatives, the first-past-the post (FPTP) system gave the Liberals one seat less. There is some poetic justice in the result. Trudeau famously broke his campaign promise to get rid of FPTP at the federal level. For his part, Gallant proceeded in virtual lock step on the issue.

When Gallant launched consultation on electoral reform in mid-2016, it was supposed to lead to change in time for the 2018 election. Just like the federal Liberals, New Brunswick Liberals favour a preferential ballot instead of proportional representation backed by most advocates as a fairer replacement for FPTP. But even when the electoral reform commission came back in early 2017 calling for the preferential ballot, Gallant opted for the status quo, punting the issue of reform to a referendum in 2020. Whether the preferential ballot would have led to a better result for the Liberals will never be known, but the decision to leave the old system intact for this election certainly backfired.

Revolving door

Another major story line maintains that the election represented a rejection of what at different times been described as political ping pong or the electoral revolving door. The Saint John Telegraph-Journal, flagship of what’s left of the Irving newspaper empire, explained it this way in a post-election editorial.

“New Brunswickers are tired of going around, over and over again, with the same old political routine…Though one government to the next may change party colour, the outcomes of the past decade have led many New Brunswickers to see our past regimes as interchangeable…There is a palpable sense that what’s been tried over the past 10 years is not working.”

Among the things not working, the T-J lists the stagnant economy, low productivity, high taxes and public debt, youth out-migration “looming” high health care costs and persistent budget deficits. So, according to that theory, faced with these intractable problems and the lack of solutions from the old-line parties, many voters turned their backs on the old ways. What the theory does not explain is why the apparent uprising should happen in 2018. Based on available sources, most of the indicators cited by the T-J are much more positive under Gallant than they were with the previous Conservative government, in power from 2010 to 2014 with aspiring Premier Blaine Higgs as Finance Minister.

Although the Gallant government did raise taxes, out-migration, budget deficits and the overall economy have improved under the Liberals. They actually balanced the budget in 2017-18, a sharp contrast with Higgs’ record of four deficit budgets totalling $2 billion worth of red ink. Net out-migration was reduced from thousands a year under the Conservatives to only 50 in 2017-18. The most recent Stats Canada data show both increased employment growth and annual wage growth of 4.4 per cent, the latter the biggest increase of any province.[1] And despite talk in the 2016 budget about cutting public sector jobs, the most recent data [2] show an increase of about five per cent in public sector employment under the Liberals. Apparently, however, Sunny Ways and the recent positive developments could not break through the clouds of gloom that have been hanging over New Brunswick for the past decade.

Rise and Fall on the left

It actually began with the 2014 election, but this one drove home the reality that, at least for now, the Greens in New Brunswick, like those in PEI, have replaced the NDP as the party of the left in provincial politics.

In the 2014 New Brunswick election the NDP finished ahead of the Greens in vote share. But while the Greens managed to elect leader David Coon in Fredericton South, NDP leader Dominic Cardy failed to win his Fredericton-area riding. Since then, Coon has acquitted himself admirably while Cardy, after another loss in a byelection and an on-going feud with some party members, de-camped and joined the Conservatives. He was elected as a Tory on Monday while the party he left behind nose-dived.

Cardy moved the NDP to the centre and the party modestly increased its share of the vote to a best-ever 13 per cent in 2014. The main growth occurred in Cardy’s Fredericton-area base, where the NDP took 18.4 per cent of the vote in 2014. On Monday in the capital region the NDP vote barely registered at 1.8 per cent, below even the much-diminished provincial average of five per cent. Meanwhile the Greens won two seats besides David Coon’s – one of them in the Sackville area, once (1982-87) held by Robert Hall, the first New Democrat ever elected to the New Brunswick legislature. The other Green victory was Kent North, epicenter of the anti-fracking protest that helped the Liberals win the 2014 election. The successful Green candidate took votes from all parties (the PA didn’t contest the seat) but most came from the NDP.

Ominous blast from the past

The emergence of the Greens may give the impression that as voters deserted the established parties they went evenly to the right and to the left. Au contraire. The Greens appeared to gain most of their support from the NDP. The combined vote for the NDP-Green in 2014 was 19.6 per cent. In 2018 it actually dropped to 16.9 per cent.

The decline in combined support from those two parties was less than for the Liberals – down 4.9 per cent – and the same as the Conservatives, down 2.7 per cent. All told, losses add up to 10.3 per cent of the vote. That is within a few rounding errors and independent votes of the gain – from 2.1 to 13.0 per cent – for the People’s Alliance, the party that dares to give voice to the lingering English resentment of equality between Anglophone and Francophone New Brunswickers.

“Ping pong” fatigue, economic malaise and the emergence of the Greens notwithstanding, the political re-emergence of Anglophone resentment makes up the main story of the election.

The province has been there before. When we moved to a rural area near Fredericton in 1985 it was in the aftermath of a series of raucous public hearings on improving public services to Francophones, 15 years after the province became officially bilingual. The English backlash against better services in French helped bring down the long-ruling Conservative government of Richard Hatfield and badly split the Tories, historically regarded by many Anglophone New Brunswickers as their party. The Liberals under Frank McKenna won every seat in the 1987 provincial election, but in the 1991 election that anti-French sentiment coalesced as the Confederation of Regions (COR), a label borrowed from a failed political venture from out west.

COR New Brunswick preached boilerplate conservative populism, but its main plank was getting rid of official bilingualism altogether. COR surprised by winning eight seats and 21.2 per cent of the vote in 1991. But its members were far removed from power, facing a Liberal government with 46 seats and stuck with a leader who had failed to win his district.[3]

After four years and much infighting, COR lost all of its seats in 1995, but the concerns that motivated its followers did not disappear. They seem to have gone underground in the terrain around Fredericton, stretching north from the Saint John River and along the Miramichi. Six of the eight seats won by the COR in 1991 came from that area and on Monday, the People’s Alliance were successful in the same territory, winning two of its seats on the northern fringes of Fredericton and another in Miramichi.

The People’s Alliance tries to be cute about its policy on bilingualism. It claims – unlike COR which wanted its repeal – to support “the original ideals” of the 1969 Official Languages Act. But the PA is against language duality in government services, a logical extension of those ideals and a work in progress since the McKenna government. The best that can be said about the PA is that the party wants to turn back the clock on equality by only 35 years, not 50.

Although the PA’s seat count and vote share don’t match COR, in a hung legislature their damaging effect on English-French relations is potentially much greater. Of the 22 Conservatives elected last Monday only one comes from a predominantly French-speaking district. In Blaine Higgs, the Conservatives have as leader a unilingual Anglophone who, during COR’s early days, entertained the idea of running for leadership of that anti-bilingual crowd. Although Higgs has presumably changed his views, the possibility of a Higgs-led Conservative government propped up – formally or otherwise – by the PA is fraught with troubling overtones. In the aftermath of Monday’s election, New Brunswickers are truly cursed with living in interesting times.



[1] Statistics Canada’s September “ Survey of Payroll, Employment, Earnings and Hours” (table 14-10-0223-01) shows a July to July employment increase for New Brunswick of 1.4 per cent and a 4.4 per cent increase in average weekly earnings. Nova Scotia had a mere 1.1 per cent growth over the same period.

[2] Statistics Canada Table 14-10-0288-01

[3] My book on Richard Hatfield, published in 1987 has part of the story of the backlash; for the full story, see Jacques Poitras’ “The Right Fight: Bernard Lord and the Conservative Dilemma,” published in 2004.