2020 has been a year that has been anything but ordinary. We’ve been thrown curve ball after curve ball and have been doing our best to adjust and get through it all. But even in this crazy year we’ve seen some flashes of what used to pass as normalcy, one of which came tonight. With New Brunswickers going to the polls (with a fair bit of controversy) on Monday September 14th, we got a leader’s debate. Yes, just like we used to get in the before times (well, kind of).
It was a six-way debate between six party leaders; Progressive Conservative Blaine Higgs, Liberal Kevin Vickers, People’s Alliance Kris Austin, Green David Coon, New Democrat Mackenzie Thomason and Keep It Simple Solutions party leader Gerald Bourque. Here were the latest polls before the debate:
Going into this debate all of the parties had a lot on the line. Given the constraints that all campaigns are facing because of COVID-19, this offered all parties a unique opportunity to be heard in the homes across the province. The question is who made the most of the night and who blew it. Well after having taken it all in, here is my take of the winners and losers in this important debate:
Blaine Higgs, PC (Winner) – Going into tonight’s debate, Higgs’ gamble to force a completely unnecessary debate during the middle of a global pandemic hadn’t blown up in his face yet. He sits in solid majority government territory and with less than two weeks before election day, it doesn’t look like he will blow it. But a debate like this, under these stakes, offers a golden opportunity to do so. Higgs’ weakness on his lack of French and his closures of hospitals were well hit and pointed out, as you would have expected. But did this debate bring any new weaknesses or knocks in his armor? No, the Opposition parties failed to do that and in doing so, Higgs was able to walk out of the debate in no worse shape than he went in. When you’re a front runner, that’s a win. Higgs’ didn’t soar over his opponents, but he kept his head above water, which was all that he ended up needing to do.
Kevin Vickers, Liberal (Loser) – I have to preface all of my comments by pointing out my true admiration for Mr. Vickers. He was Sergeant at Arms of the House of Commons for a lot of my time there and his brave acts when Parliament was invaded by that gunman is something that I will always appreciate. I believe that he served Canada well as Ambassador to Ireland as well and did us proud. That’s what made watching tonight’s debate so hard. He has a great resume for anyone who enters politics and that is a great asset. But watching tonight’s debate, you could clearly see his discomfort on the stage. He stumbled when speaking and in one odd moment actually raised his voice in apparent anger at the debate moderator, the kind of thing I don’t think I ever witnessed. He wasn’t sharp on the issues and continually said “our” when talking about the Indigenous peoples of the province, which is not just a serious pet peeve of mine but very insulting. This was Vickers chance to put his best foot forward and he failed to do so. If this debate had been in French or had been bilingual, Higgs’ lack of French would have helped him look better but that wasn’t the case here. For a leader who was already behind the eight ball, tonight’s performance put him further behind it.
David Coon, Green (Push) – As has been the case in the last two provincial elections in New Brunswick, Mr. Coon entered this debate as the wild card. The rise of the Greens in New Brunswick has been unique in all of the country, as unique as the political climate in the province. But tonight there was a marked difference; with the Greens rising in the polls and two years of a track record holding the balance of power, Coon took as much incoming fire as he gave to others. This was especially true from Mr. Vickers, who was clearly trying to staunch any bleeding to the Green team. Coon handled that new attention in a mixed way, with his answer to his abstention on mandatory vaccination legislation this year. Not only did the other leaders call out how lacking that was and that part of his job as an elected official is to vote and take a stand, Coon didn’t have any better explanation for his abstention then he had at any other date. It was a moment that you had to think he knew would be coming, yet he seemed unprepared for it. Beyond that, Coon held his own well enough and withstood serious damage to his party’s momentum. Vickers was unable to blast a big hole in the hot air balloon that has been the Greens polling number, but thanks to the efforts of the assembled leaders, that balloon didn’t escape the night unscathed. So while Coon didn’t win the night, he did better than Mr. Vickers, which means it wasn’t a loss.
Kris Austin, People’s Alliance (Loser) – In the last election Mr. Austin’s party had the big electoral break through that it had been chasing for a long time. But as polling in this campaign is showing, the support for the People’s Alliance has crated and it seems that many of the supports of the party on the far right in this province are going home to the PC’s. That made tonight a “make or break” moment for Austin and he made his plea very clear; don’t wipe us off the map and give the Higgs PC’s a majority. All night long, he kept coming back to that message. Most of his talking points were what you would expect from him, given how long he’s been on the political stage in the province. As such, he brought nothing new policy wise to the debate that you didn’t already know about his party. In effect, Austin was trying to make the case about why they should get to stay in the legislature, and I can’t say it’s an argument he was successful in making. For someone who needed to build momentum coming out of this debate, he failed to do that and ultimately, that puts him in the loser column.
Mackenzie Thomason, NDP (Push) – I have a lot of empathy for young Mr. Thomason. I’ve had the pleasure in the past to go campaign for the New Brunswick NDP and I got to see the hard work that was put in to rebuild that party. Thomason became the interim leader after the last election and because of circumstances and a pandemic, the party was unable to get a new leader in place. That left him holding the bag when the Higgs’ PC’s forced this early election, with a party at its lowest point in a very long time. No seats, no permanent leader and no prospects; hardly an easy task for anyone, let alone a 23-year-old who didn’t expect to be in the role. Yet tonight that was the position he was thrust into and he did well. He didn’t shine or outperform his opponents, but to be fair none of them really had a great night. But he held his own, knew his policy and even when Mr. Coon was getting asked about his anti-vaccination abstention, Thomason gave a highlight of an answer, explaining the true duties of an elected official even though he himself wasn’t. For the NDP, New Brunswick has never been fertile ground and the job of building for any electoral success there, if it’s possible, would be a long one. So while tonight’s performance isn’t likely to result in the NDP winning any seats in this election, I think that Thomason stepped up and showed that he has a political future. He was thoughtful, informed, mostly prepared and came across well, all at the tender age of 23. They say that pressure either crushes you or makes diamonds. Tonight the pressure thrust upon Thomason’s shoulders didn’t crush him at all and while it didn’t make a full-on diamond, it created a few shining flecks that could over time become just as shiny and valuable. Given the circumstances, that would be a good thing to come out of this debate for the orange team.
Gerald Bourque, Keep It Simple Solutions (Present) – Tonight was the introduction of Gerald Bourque to most Canadians and while he clearly showed he had no business being on that stage tonight, he showed what I love about watching debates like these in smaller provinces. In most other provinces, you’d never see a party leader with no seats, a hand full of candidates and zero chance of getting elected being invited to take part in such a debate. But in New Brunswick, debates are a bit like being in the audience of “The Price is Right”; if you show up on a ballot there’s a good chance that someone’s going call your name and say “Come on down!!!”. So for Mr. Bourque, he was there, so that’s my grade; present. As for Mr. Bourque’s hat, that was surely a winner but if someone out there doesn’t make a “Gerald Bourque’s Hat” Twitter account after this debate, it’s we Canadians who are truly the biggest losers from this night.