Last winter, in the midst of the SNC-Lavalin scandal, I confidently predicted during a session of political gossip that the Liberals would lose half of their 32 seats in Atlantic Canada. Lucky for me, no one forced me to put money on it. Last week’s election, with the Liberals holding all but six of their seats in this region came as a surprise, at least to me.
Back in February I thought that the image tarnishing from SNC-Lavalin and the cringe-worthy India trip from a year earlier would combine with the shortcomings of the Liberal record to at least restore the sort of seat balance that existed before voters in the four easternmost provinces contracted Trudeaumania II in 2015, sending only Liberals to Ottawa.
About that record, although not as dire as 1993 to 1997, the last time Atlantic Canadians gave the Liberals a near sweep, their recent performance – long on rhetoric and short on results – left much to be desired. Health transfers to the provinces head the list of shortcomings, with poverty reduction, public sector employment bungling of tax policy and a timid approach to climate change added to Liberal failures.
On economic development, once a preoccupation here, the past couple of years have brought some population and job growth, but the regional economy was practically stagnant until 2018. Now that the economy has picked up, we are feeling the downside of growth with a housing affordability crunch the Liberals have addressed mainly through a public relations exercise.
With all of that, the flip flop on electoral reform and the mid-campaign brownface, it’s not surprising there was a sharp drop in Liberal support across the region – more than twice the national decline of 15 per cent. But the margin of Liberal wins in 2015, fragmented distribution of Liberal losses in 2019, fear-mongering about a Conservative victory and some old-fashioned pork barreling kept Liberal seat losses to a minimum. As Table 1 shows, the overwhelming 2015 vote provided a nice cushion for the Liberals in 2019.
|Province||Seats 2015||Seats 2019||Vote Share 2015||Vote Share 2019|
|Prince Edward I.||4||4||58.3||43.6%|
In three- or four-way races a 40 per cent vote share is enough to win most seats, something the Liberals demonstrated in 2019. Four of the seats they lost – three in New Brunswick and one in St. John’s – were won narrowly in 2015. In three of those seats, the winning candidate in 2019 was the narrow loser in 2015 and will be re-claiming a spot in Ottawa.
The New Brunswick returnees were Rob Moore and John Williamson, Conservatives from the Reform roots of the party, who can be expected to carry on the Provincial Conservative government’s support for a pipeline to the province from the west. Jack Harris, the restored NDP member from St. John’s will be kept busy advancing Newfoundland’s concerns.
In 2015 the Liberals handily won West Nova, the only Nova Scotia seat to change hands last week. Their advantage disappeared this time, a result of the retirement of the Liberal incumbent and a strong Conservative candidate. Chris d’Entremont, long-time MLA and former Conservative cabinet minister, pitched himself to voters as someone who could bring a moderate regional perspective to the western-dominated Conservative caucus. We should wish him luck with that.
Fredericton, the sixth seat lost by the Liberals, is the most interesting, won narrowly in a three-way contest by Jenica Atwin of the Greens. Her victory with 34 per cent of the vote, did not come completely out of the blue. New Brunswick Green leader David Coon has represented Fredericton provincially since 2014. In the 2015 election Fredericton was the only riding in Atlantic Canada in which the Greens received more than 10 per cent of the vote.
The win for the Greens in Fredericton, giving them a third seat in the House of Commons, salvaged a tough night for the party nationally. Despite the prominence of the climate change issue and pre-campaign speculation that they would overtake the NDP, their share of the national popular vote was only 6.5 per cent, less than their previous high achieved in 2008.
However, as the Fredericton result demonstrated, the Greens had a good day in the Maritimes, especially in New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island where they duplicated recent provincial election success, more than doubling the number of votes cast for the NDP.
|Party||Net Loss from 2015||Per Cent loss||Party||Net Gain from 2015||Per cent gain|
As the table shows, the Conservatives seem to be the main beneficiaries of the drop in Liberal support, but the Greens were close behind numerically and their percentage gain was far greater. Indeed, it was reminiscent of the 1997 election, when NDP support increased five fold, giving the party eight seats in Atlantic Canada. That sort of volatility re-surfaced in 2015 with the Liberal sweep, and the rise of the Greens indicates it is still in play.
From the NDP breakthrough in 1997 to the Trudeau sweep of 2015 federal politics in Atlantic Canada played out as a three-way competition. The Greens have made it a four-way contest.
How long this new alignment will last is anybody’s guess. In the meantime, there will be new voices from this region in the House of Commons. We may not always agree with what they are saying, but it will be an improvement over the political monoculture that has prevailed for the last four years.
 For example, Newfoundland and Labrador has benefitted from a recent deal to share profits from Ottawa’s 8.5 per cent interest in the Hibernia oil field and the promise of support for the long discussed Newfoundland to Labrador tunnel made it into the Liberal platform.