FREDERICTON – A telegenic, social media-savvy Liberal leader known for big deficits is pitted against an austerity-minded rookie Tory leader just beginning to make an impression on voters.
In what can be seen as a preview of the next federal contest, a New Brunswick election is now just three months away.
Liberal Premier Brian Gallant is a champion of gender equality whose new wife makes frequent appearances on his Twitter feed.
Since taking power in 2014, Gallant has also become known as a big spender, vowing to spend record amounts in health care and education, and an extra $150 million per year for six years on infrastructure.
Gallant is seeking a second term in a province that has developed a penchant for tossing governments aside after just one mandate.
His main opponent in the Sept. 24 vote: Blaine Higgs, who became Progressive Conservative leader in October 2016.
Higgs was finance minister under former premier David Alward, and Gallant is trying to tie the new Tory leader to the ousted Tory government.
“We had, under the Blaine Higgs Conservatives, four years of freeze and even cuts into health care and education investments, and that retracted and shrunk our economy,” Gallant said.
But Higgs, a former Irving Oil Ltd. executive, said a Tory government with him as premier would be different, and based on getting results.
“It isn’t about cutting. It’s about spending and getting results. If we’re spending money and not getting results, we’ll stop spending that money. And if we can put that money into some other area and get results, that’s where we’ll place it,” he said.
The province’s finances are becoming the dominant issue early in the campaign run-up.
Kim MacPherson, the province’s auditor general, warned this month that Liberal spending has come at a cost — with the province running its 11th consecutive deficit and a net debt on track to hit $14.4 billion by the end of March 2019.
The government announced in January it would delay a return to balanced budgets until 2021-2022.
Gallant said his government needs to continue spending to fuel the economy.
“We need to grow the economy in a way that we are helping those that are struggling — families that are going to difficult times, and those that are in vulnerable situations,” he said.
“Since we’ve been the government we’ve increased the investments in education and early childhood development by 15.9 per cent. We’ve increased our investments in health care by 9.8 per cent. I think it demonstrates that we have education and health care as two of our priorities as a government, but it also demonstrates that we are taking a completely different approach from Blaine Higgs and the Conservatives,” Gallant said.
Higgs is critical of the Liberal record, suggesting deficit spending has made little difference in the province.
“We’re tied for last with Newfoundland in economic growth. We’re 7th or 8th in education. Our health wait times are the longest in the country in overall wait times. And we even got voted worst road by CAA. What do we have to show for all this money that we’re spending?” he said.
The only other party with a legislature seat are the Greens, and leader David Coon said New Brunswickers don’t feel well served.
Despite sitting on the Public Accounts committee, Coon said he doesn’t know where all the money is going.
Coon said the use of government money to entice large companies to New Brunswick isn’t working.
“We need to be able to build our local economy up with a mind to the kind of transformation we really need in this province,” he said.
For her part, NDP Leader Jennifer McKenzie is campaigning on a plan to increase the minimum wage to $15 an hour.
“You can’t pay your bills and buy food at the end of the day on $11 an hour. So people are holding down two and three jobs sometimes,” she said.
McKenzie is running in the same Saint John riding where Elizabeth Weir was the NDP member until 2005 — the last time the party had a seat in the legislature.
Language is again the main issue for Kris Austin, leader of the People’s Alliance. New Brunswick is the only officially bilingual province in Canada, but Austin has concerns with how it is implemented.
Ambulance New Brunswick has kept some ambulances out of service because of a shortage of bilingual paramedics.
“If you look at an area like Charlotte County (south of Saint John) where there is less than a four per cent francophone population, why do we have this ridiculous threshold of requiring bilingual paramedics in that area?” Austin said.
Austin, who lost a Fredericton-area seat by just 26 votes in the 2014 election, said a translation service can be used when needed.
Currently in the legislature, the Liberals have 24 seats, the Progressive Conservatives 22, the Greens one, former Liberal speaker Chris Collins is sitting as an independent, and there is one vacancy.