2020 has been a year for the books and has continually brought us things that we thought we’d never likely see. Between the COVID-19 pandemic, the economic crisis that stemmed from it and all of the fall out across the board, it’s been a year that has continued to keep us on our toes. It’s forced us all to do tough things, make hard decisions and face realities that we never thought we’d need to. And that’s just to do many of the normal day to day things that we really took for granted before this.
All of that was happening before we even started to think about how we’d take parts in other parts of our normal society, things that essentially revolved around human contact and being in enclosed spaces. In our democracy, elections are surely one of those things and prior to the last month we hadn’t seen what a general election would look like during COVID-19. There were a lot of unknowns, theories and assumptions that we had about what it might look like, be we really didn’t know because we hadn’t seen any of this in action in a very long time. So it was into that breach that New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs threw his province, shutting down a minority legislature that was working, all in the attempt to get a majority government, pandemic be damned. Last night we saw the results and here are my thoughts on them, by party in order of how they finished.
Progressive Conservatives: Well folks, it looks like Blaine Higgs gamble paid off as he got his majority. It’s not a massive one, as he only has a few seats above that line. But he got there, and in the end that’s what this was all about. Higgs didn’t win this by sweeping over the competition as he did relatively by default. This isn’t a wave of Higgs-mania running through the body politic of New Brunswick as it is a choice based on the least bad option. You can’t point to one policy or one debate that brought the PC’s across the finish line in first because really there wasn’t one. This PC win really comes down to two things. The first was having a more efficient vote in more parts of the province, which allowed them to take advantage of splits in enough ridings to get across the finish line. The second was the nature of this election, with so many voting early or by mail because of the pandemic. That meant that an inordinate number of people locked their votes in early, which greatly benefitted the PC’s. You could argue that if this had been a normal election in normal times, the result would have been much closer because far more people would have voted on Election Day and therefore could have changed their minds. In the end, they made the best of the circumstances and they’ve now got four years of uninterrupted government to prove themselves.
Liberals: Last night was surely not the result the Red Team wanted but it wasn’t very shocking. Liberal Leader Kevin Vickers had his chance to make his case to New Brunswickers and frankly, he didn’t succeed. He struggled through out the campaign and as much of a nice person that he’s agreed to be, his lack of natural political ability and sense showed through out the campaign. It came back to bite him many times and created odd situations. In a race where no one soared about the crowd, that lack of natural political ability rose to the top more than it might have otherwise. But it would be unfair to put this all down to Kevin Vickers because the numbers tell a worse story. Where the PC vote had decent efficiency in most of the province, the Liberals were highly inefficient. They ran up the score with their base in Northern New Brunswick, in some cases winning ridings with more than 10 times the vote. But in other areas like Fredericton, they ran a distant third or fourth, well behind the Greens and even behind the People’s Alliance in many ridings. So when you look at the provincial polling, it looked like they were the best other chance to win but when you looked at the regions, you could quickly see that was never going to happen. It’s one thing to lose a close race, but it’s something completely different to not even be in the race in large parts of the province. With Vickers resigning his leadership during media interviews last night after losing his attempt to win a seat, the next Liberal leader in the province will have a big rebuilding job on their hands. It will be interesting to see who decides they want to take on that task, but it took mere minutes last night for at least one Liberal MP from Saint John to give the impression he wanted that job. Stay tuned.
Greens: Last night was surely not the result the Greens wanted to see and was a night of mixed blessings. On the upside, they re-elected all of their sitting MLA’s and they will go back to the Legislature for a full four-year term. They also performed well in urban areas like Fredericton and Moncton, getting closer to winning a few more seats. But that’s where the good news ends for the Green team. They grew their vote, but not by much, merely a few percentage points and not close to the much higher poll numbers they showed during the campaign. You could chalk that up to the usual Green problem of “polling high, voting low” that we’ve seen time and again with Green parties across the country, but I would argue that this time it’s not as clear as that. While the PC’s benefitted from the early voting nature of this campaign, you could argue that hurt the Greens. With so many votes locked in early, you could argue that blunted any momentum they built up during the campaign itself, which is when we saw their poll numbers rise. That will be an interesting point of debate for a while to come. But the worst news of the night for the Greens was the fact that it was a majority government that was elected. That will blunt almost any impact David Coon and his team will be able to have in this legislature and eliminates all the levers they had at their disposal in a minority government. When this was pointed out to Coon during media interviews last night, he tried to spin it, saying that he had good personal relationships with cabinet ministers and that he could twist arms to get results. But I think that he’s about to learn the cold, hard facts of life in a majority government and he’s quickly going to realize that his position is worse off than it was just a couple of months ago.
People’s Alliance: If things were rough last night for the Green’s, they were worse for Kris Austin’s People’s Alliance. They lost a seat and were reduced to two, making them the fourth party in a majority government. That gives them fewer seats and less influence than they had before, period. In fact, you could argue that losses in the PA’s vote is likely what got the Higgs PC’s over the finish line and into majority territory. But for Austin and his team, it could have been much worse. They were seriously looking at the prospect of being wiped right off the electoral map last night. They avoided that fate and have lived to fight another day. Not only did Austin win, but their other win denied Kevin Vickers a seat in the legislature, likely hastening his resignation. It will be interesting to see how the PA operates in this environment and where they find space for themselves in the debate. But given everything that could have happened to them last night, the fact that they even get to have that discussion now is as good a sign as they could ask for.
NDP: Look everyone, this was a campaign where there were no expectations for the NDP. They weren’t going to win a seat, they weren’t going to be competitive and it was a bad situation. But it was still shocking to see the hard number staring you in the face at the end of the night. 1.65% of the vote is terrible, it just is, especially when you consider where they were at just two campaigns ago. Even by New Brunswick NDP standards, it is bad. Building in this province has never been easy for the NDP and never had been for third parties in general. Historically as New Democrats, you could chalk it up to just that. But the past couple of campaigns have changed all of that. The fact that you’re now going to have your third consecutive legislature with more than two parties, and your second in a row with four parties, means that things have changed. The fact that the NDP isn’t one of those other parties is something that cannot be ignored, wished away or overlooked. In a time of change, the NDP has missed the boat in New Brunswick and now sit firmly on the outside of the political debate. They are now the fifth party, and barely there. That brings me no joy or happiness to say, it’s just the honest assessment of where the Orange Team is in the province. Interim Leader Mackenzie Thomason was credited, and rightfully so, for making the best of the situation he was thrown into. I was impressed by his work and I believe he has a bright future ahead of him. But even that laudable effort on his part earned him only 100 votes and a fifth-place riding in his Fredericton area riding. In the cold light of day, that’s not good enough. Where the Orange team goes from here, it’s hard to say. I would argue the conversation they will have will be very different than in the past. The upside for them is that they now have four years to get to that work. We’ll see what they can make of it, but they clearly have the hardest job ahead of them of any other party in the province.