The New Brunswick provincial election comes to an end in less than a week on Monday, September 14th Given the nature of this first COVID campaign in Canada, every chance that a leader can get to speak directly to the public is important. Last week such an opportunity came with the first Leaders Debate put on by Rogers TV. Tonight the CBC Leaders Forum gave another chance, likely the best chance for the leaders of all parties to make their last mark.
This forum was only a five-way debate this time between Progressive Conservative Blaine Higgs, Liberal Kevin Vickers, People’s Alliance Kris Austin, Green David Coon and New Democrat Mackenzie Thomason. Unfortunately for all Canadians who took the time to watch, Keep It Simple Solutions party leader Gerald Bourque and his hat were not invited to take part. Being that this was a forum and not a debate as such, it made for a much more collegial 90-minutes without some of the harsh tones and raised voices from the first debate. But how did everyone do? Here is my take on tonight’s winners and losers:
Blaine Higgs, PC (Winner): Tonight’s debate was not one full of fireworks, fire and brimstone or really any heat of the sort. A big part of that was due to the forum format used, which I feel flowed nicer than the first debate. That being said, coming in as the incumbent Premier with a solid lead in the polls, any debate that is quiet and low temperature is one that favoured Higgs. And that’s exactly what we got. Like the first debate, while Higgs didn’t shine or soar above the rest, he didn’t need to. This debate and campaign reminds me a lot of some great advice my Dad taught me when I was a kid if I ever came across a bear; You don’t need to outrun the bear, only the other person with you. Higgs isn’t delivering a world beating campaign or performance, but he’s outrunning the others and that’s all he needs to do.
Kevin Vickers, Liberal (Loser): As I mentioned after the first debate, I personally like Mr. Vickers a lot. I hold him in high esteem for his past work, especially in Ottawa. But the problem that plagued him last time did again tonight. While the format removed the chances of intemperate outbursts like the ones he made in the last debate, Vickers didn’t look much more comfortable. He was compared to last time, but it was a minor improvement that didn’t move the needle in this race. He was at his best when he spoke about his grandchildren, as he lit up and came across much better in those moments. But while better, that wasn’t good enough. Tonight was probably Vickers last, best chance to prove that he should be the next Premier of New Brunswick. He had to stand out and grab this job tonight, and he didn’t do so. We’ll see in the coming days if any polls move in his direction after this, but I suspect they’ll show he didn’t hurt himself tonight, but he didn’t help himself either.
David Coon, Green (Winner): In the last debate David Coon was a much of a target for Liberal Kevin Vickers as Blaine Higgs was, and for good reason. The Greens went into that debate rising in the polls and looking like they were starting to eat the Liberals lunch. Tonight’s different format helped to neutralize any income fire this time, and it honestly helped Coon greatly. He didn’t find himself in odd positions, like he did in the last debate having to explain his abstention on mandatory vaccination legislation earlier this year. That alone would have made his night tonight better, but beyond that he performed better across the board. He didn’t shine, he didn’t flash but that’s not who he is. He was solid and competent, something that any third-party leader needs to show in moments like these. Also more to the point, Coon didn’t harp on the value of having a minority legislature again coming out of this election. Usually when third parties are getting squeezed out, that is the go-to language to not only keep the seats they have but keep them relevant. It was notable to me that while Coon did point to legislative initiatives that he brought forward, he did not come back to this theme. That sends a signal of strength on his part, that his party will not come out of this election with fewer seats and isn’t worried about being squeezed out of the conversation. It’s also notable that it’s a Green Party leader not leaning on that argument or not feeling the need to. This might be the first time we’ve seen a Green leader with the confidence in their position to not need to go there, which tells you a fair bit about where Mr. Coon and his team feels they are.
Kris Austin, People’s Alliance (Loser): Speaking of talking about the virtues of minority government, that brings us to Mr. Austin. While Mr. Coon barely touched that topic all night, Austin did a nervous, ill-tempered tap dance all over the subject. His entire approach tonight and all of his pitch kept coming back to that. Given that tonight was the last, best chance to speak to New Brunswickers across the board, it was clear that Austin saw tonight was very much a “make or break” moment for his party. Adding to that clear tension was the fact that despite this lower-temperature format of the night, Austin himself came across as the angriest candidate relative to the rest of the gentlemen on stage. The desperation of Mr. Austin’s situation was clear and was visible in his expressions all night. So while Mr. Coon’s approach showed confidence in his position, Mr. Austin’s lack of it showed how weak his feels his position is. In my estimation, he missed his chance to leave the voters with a final, strong impression of he and his party. In the end where this race was going, it may not have mattered but tonight surely did nothing to bend the arc of this race in his direction.
Mackenzie Thomason, NDP (Push): If there is one thing that I believe can be generally agreed on in this race, it is that Mr. Thomason has done a beyond admirable job in this race. He came into this race in a very unenviable position, with no seats and even less hope. Yet he followed up a solid first debate with another solid performance tonight. Again Thomason showed strong grasp of his policies and communicated them well, better than some others on the stage. Given the state of his party, it allowed him to say some things that none of the others on that stage would say, which really stood out in a debate where very little new was said. But with all that positive being said, Thomason also had to lean on the “we need third-party MLAs” argument that Mr. Austin did. The difference was that Thomason had to do it from a position of greater weakness. It is what it is, but I couldn’t help but notice it. Coming out of tonight, Thomason was able to prove that the first debate was not a fluke and presented a professional face to New Brunswickers. It’s not likely going to be enough to turn any seats orange next week, but I do believe that Mackenzie Thomason does have a political future ahead of him. It’s not lost on me that the only party to enter this campaign without a permanent leader and without prospects of a strong name to take on the job may have found their leader in the heat of this moment. The NDP won’t win this election, but it feels that a party that had hit rock bottom over a year ago is starting to rebuild strongly. They likely won’t win any seats this time around, but they will come out of this election in a stronger position than they went into it with. That’s a victory of its own kind and heck, everyone has to start somewhere.