After just less than two years since its last election, Canada’s first COVID-era election took place today in New Brunswick as Premier Blaine Higgs and the New Brunswick Progressive Conservatives sought to turn a narrow minority government into a four-year majority government.
There were many questions on how an election in the age of COVID would pan out in terms of turnout and whether a Premier who deliberately called an election might fare. (Saskatchewan will go to the polls later this year in a fixed-election date no later than October 26.)
It turned out that Higgs’ electoral gamble paid off with the PCs winning a majority government with 27 seats, the Liberals with 17 seats, the Greens with 3 seats and the People’s Alliance with 2 seats.
How We Got Here
After a very tight September 2018 election where Higgs and the PCs won one more seat than then-Premier Brian Gallant and the New Brunswick Liberals (who won the popular vote) and a subsequent non-confidence vote in the legislature, Higgs was able to cobble together a working minority with the support of the People’s Alliance for up to 18 months.
Subsequently, Liberal Leader Brian Gallant resigned. After a long search for a Leader, former House of Commons Sergeant-at-Arms and Canadian Ambassador to Ireland Kevin Vickers was acclaimed as the new leader in April of 2019. While he has a formidable past outside of politics, Vickers was challenged to achieve the same share of voice as Higgs, coupled with a lack of name recognition in the province.
While Higgs had faced criticism pre-COVID over challenges around health care, including proposed closure of emergency wards, New Brunswick’s response to COVID alongside its Atlantic cousins allowed the political situation to somewhat stabilize. In August, Higgs proposed four-party talks to allow the government to continue in power until the October 2022 fixed-election date or the end of the pandemic. When the Liberals pulled out of those negotiations, Higgs went to the Lieutenant-Governor to ask for a dissolution.
At dissolution, the standings in the New Brunswick Legislature were 20 PCs, 20 Liberals, 3 Greens, 3 People’s Alliance, 2 Vacant and 1 Independent.
While the PC’s opponents (especially the Liberals) tried to make the campaign about an unnecessary election during the pandemic, Higgs and the PCs ran on a platform of “Recover, Reinvent, Renew”, coupled with framing Higgs as an “experienced leader”. The PCs simply said that they would continue doing what they did over the last two years, with Higgs saying their platform was “no surprises as we said all along. It’s what we’ve been planning and doing for the last two years.”
Liberals countered with a platform of “Working Together”, suggesting that the economy had been ignored combined with a lack of attention to the environment. Liberal Leader Vickers proposed a “30-day Action Plan” including keeping rural hospitals open and new contracts with nurses, coupled with a balanced budget commitment in three years.
For the PCs to turn a minority into a majority, they needed to take votes away from the People’s Alliance and encroach north into francophone areas of the province, traditionally Liberal seats. For the Liberals, they needed to turn Green votes Liberal and to move south into traditional PC areas. Of course, a Premier with plenty of media coverage, especially during the pandemic had an advantage over a new and untested Liberal leader.
It only took 35 minutes for media to declare Blaine Higgs and the PCs as the winner of a majority government. A gain of seven seats from dissolution for the PCs and a loss of three seats for the Liberals, coupled with Liberal leader Vickers losing his seat to the People’s Alliance incumbent pushed Higgs into majority territory
In terms of the popular vote, the PCs gain of 7% coupled with a 3% Liberal decrease, a 3% Green increase and 3% decrease for the People’s Alliance meant Higgs’ gamble of an early election paid off handsomely. In addition, turnout at time of writing was just over 60%.
For Liberals, there will have to be some soul-searching given Kevin Vickers failure to win a seat and the need to find a new leader. For the Greens and People’s Alliance, the challenge will be to remain relevant – in a minority they held a lot of power but the electoral math has now shifted dramatically.
Perhaps the most interesting outcome for electoral observers is that an election can successfully be held during a pandemic and a minority government can be elected with a majority. Given rumblings of possible elections in British Columbia as well as nationally, parties of all stripes will be thinking of how New Brunswick’s experience might play out on a larger scale.
Now that Higgs has a stable majority government, observers should not expect a lot of drama from the PCs going forward. Higgs has delivered fairly stable government even with the narrowest of margins, and it is expected that little will change in terms of style or substance in the new majority.
While Higgs made it clear during the campaign that the PCs would continue their style of governing, they also highlighted the need for an economic recovery post-COVID. This includes a focus on helping businesses compete in a digital world, prioritizing local businesses in government procurement and programs to help businesses close the productivity gap with the rest of Canada. More money for mental health services including walk-in mental health clinics and digital mental health was also a major plank. The PCs also promised to expand rural internet access, 5G services and to build a cybersecurity cluster to attract foreign investment.
The platform also included increased funding to recruit more doctors and nurse practitioners as well as shorter wait lists for hip and knee surgeries. Finally, as is always an issue in New Brunswick, the PCs have promised to increase the population by 10,000 people each year until 2027.