Every election involves a winner—but a confusing result greeted voters the morning after the New Brunswick provincial election.
A wild election night on Sept. 24 resulted in the first minority government in the province since 1920 and left no party able to claim an immediate victory.
The Progressive Conservatives came away with 22 seats, the Liberals won 21 and the Greens and People’s Alliance each took three. New Brunswick’s legislature has 49 seats, and no party had the 25 needed for a majority government.
Shortly after midnight, Progressive Conservative leader Blaine Higgs told supporters that he had spoken to some constitutional experts and was ready to celebrate.
“As in any race, the one who has the most numbers wins,” he said.
Meanwhile in Dieppe, Liberal Leader Brian Gallant said he would meet with the lieutenant governor to see how he could work with other parties to continue governing.
“We heard the message loud and clear, New Brunswickers have sent third parties into the legislature in a way that they haven’t done before,” he said.
Third parties were celebrating their success—for the most part. Green Party leader David Coon had been re-elected by a wide margin and two other Green candidates were voted into office. Three People’s Alliance candidates will be joining the legislature for the first time after two unsuccessful elections, including party leader Kris Austin from Fredericton-Grand Lake. The NDP, however, failed to win a single seat and dropped substantially in popular vote percentage.
The morning after election night, political analysts and party officials scrambled to determine what would come next.
“It’s highly unprecedented,” Tom Bateman, St. Thomas University political science professor, said. “In no one’s living memory has this happened, and this is an especially awkward party configuration.”
Third party surge
In a historic surge of third party support, the People’s Alliance and the Green Party obtained three seats apiece in the New Brunswick Legislative Assembly.
The People’s Alliance began in 2010 as a centre-right party focused on “common sense,” rural populism and opposition to some aspects of official bilingualism and duality. Austin lost his riding in the 2014 election by only 26 votes.
This election, the party nominated 30 candidates, 19 short of a full slate.
The Alliance drew strong support from rural, majority anglophone ridings in southwest New Brunswick this election. Austin finally won his seat after his third try; the party also won seats in Fredericton-York, where Rick Desaulniers defeated PC incumbent Kirk MacDonald, and Miramichi, where Michelle Conroy beat Liberal cabinet minister Bill Fraser.
The party also finished second in seven other ridings, including a 35-vote loss in Southwest Miramichi-Bay du Vin.
Bateman said the People’s Alliance’s success can be linked to the hard work of Austin.
“I think they benefited from two campaigns by two old-line parties which were unimaginative, and I think intentionally avoiding some important issues in the province,” he said.
The Alliance has drawn criticism, particularly from a number of Acadian and language rights groups, for its position on eliminating duality. Austin maintains that he is not anti-French, just opposed to the current way bilingualism is being implemented in New Brunswick.
He has described his party's stance as "common sense" and said he would eliminate the official languages commissioner.
Bateman said while the party is a “faint echo” of the old Confederation of Regions party, active in the 1980s and early 1990s, it represents more than that.
“It’s kind of a populist formation, it’s a group of people concerned about the fate of rural New Brunswick,” Bateman said.
The Greens also had a successful night. The party picked up an additional two seats in the legislature and saw their leader be comfortably re-elected on Monday night.
In the riding of Kent North, Kevin Arsenault defeated Liberal candidate Emery Comeau by over eight percentage points. Arsenault is a farmer and Acadian activist who is well known in the region.
“This guy’s authentic, he’s a farmer,” Bateman said. “He’s got dirt under his fingernails.”
Green candidate Megan Mitton edged out Bernard LeBlanc in a tight race in Memramcook-Tantramar by only 11 votes. A recount is required when the difference between leading candidates is less than 25 votes.
Shortly after the polls closed, leader David Coon had a comfortable 56 per cent lead over Liberal candidate Susan Holt in his riding of Fredericton South.
Coon is the first second-term Green MLA in the province’s history. He was the first member of his party to sit in the provincial legislature—and only the fourth in the country. Coon received just over 30 per cent of the vote in a tight five-way race in 2014.
He told The Brunswickan in an election night interview that “the walls have crumbled” for Green Party exposure after serving in the legislature the last four years.
Coon did not commit to work with either party, but has been entering talks with Higgs and Gallant around confidence agreements. He will not make anything public until October when recounts are final.
“Well we’ll have to see what the math looks like, but certainly I’m not going to be able to—will not be able to work with any party that commited to take the rights away from Acadians and other Francophones in the province or from Indigenous people for that matter, or who won’t take climate change seriously,” he said. “That’s not going to happen.”
In contrast to the Greens and People’s Alliance, the NDP dropped substantially in the standings compared to 2014. The party picked up just over 19,000 votes for 5 per cent of the popular vote this year—an eight percentage point dip from the previous provincial election.
Paul Howe, a political science professor at the University of New Brunswick, said support for smaller parties typically drops down at election time. This year’s provincial election defied his expectations.
“It’s partly issue-driven, it’s partly general discontent with the political system,” he said.
JP Lewis, a political scientist at the University of New Brunswick in Saint John, said there were indications in 2014 of a possible third party breakthrough.
What went wrong for the Liberals?
After having won a majority government in 2014, the Liberals, led by Premier Brian Gallant, led in the polls throughout the campaign. With all voting stations reporting, the Liberals received 37.8 per cent of the votes compared with the PC share of 31.9 per cent. However, with 21 seats to the Progressive Conservatives’ 22, this did not translate to victory in the legislature.
That’s a situation political scientists call an inefficient vote.
The Liberals won by large margins in nearly every riding across northern New Brunswick, but failed to draw votes from other regions, particularly the southwest of the province.
Bateman said the Liberals might have spent too much time attacking Higgs with “dark, foreboding tones” and not enough advertising how they’re doing their best to face the province’s challenges.
“It was an antagonistic, defensive sort of campaign which was combined with old-style vote auctioneering,” he said. “It became a little bit hollow after a time, and I think it put off a lot of New Brunswickers.”
Howe said he thinks the party felt confident at the start of the campaign.
“They probably felt they could just try to cruise through the campaign and avoid controversies and be elected,” he said. “It seemed like their vote slipped away from them a bit and caused them to lose the election.”
Lewis said the lack of a clear winner shows that New Brunswickers are frustrated with the major political parties that have a hold on the province. According to him, arguments for electoral reform might play out due to the results.
The morning after the election, Gallant was asked by reporters about electoral reform. He said any changes would involve consultation with the public, possibly through a referendum.
“I think it’s something New Brunswickers would be interesting in seeing,” Gallant said.
Trying to form a government
It was Gallant the morning after the election, not Higgs, that was first through the doors of the Old Government House in Fredericton to meet with Lieutenant Governor Jocelyne Roy-Vienneau.
Gallant told reporters afterwards that he continues to believe the Liberals are in a strong position to maintain the confidence of the house.
“I want to be very clear,” he said. “I humbly accept the very strong message New Brunswickers sent last night.”
The premier said he has permission from Roy-Vienneau to continue governing. Under Canada’s system of government, a first minister can remain in office and test the confidence of the legislature first, regardless of election results.
Higgs had his own meeting with the lieutenant governor two days later, offering journalists a different message. The Progressive Conservative leader called on Gallant to “recognize that he had lost the election,” and said Roy Vienneau told him she would call on the Tories if the Liberals are unable to secure confidence.
“He does not have a mandate to govern and he is prolonging the inevitable, and it’s unfortunate that that’s the case,” Higgs said after the meeting. “If he refuses to resign, he should do what is right for New Brunswick and immediately call the legislature back, so the province has a stable and functioning government.”
Both sides are now in political deadlock and attempting pull all the support they can from third parties and across the aisle. Both the Liberals and Progressive Conservatives have accused each other of offering incentives to members of the other party to convince them to lend their support.
One possible seat that could change is Shippigan-Lamèque-Miscou, a francophone riding on the Acadian Peninsula, which was previously held by the Liberals but flipped to PC candidate Robert Gauvin. Gauvin has been a vocal critic of the People’s Alliance stance on linguistic rights.
Bateman said Gauvin will be a minister if Higgs forms the government, and is an extremely important member of the Conservative caucus for francophone representation.
“The People’s Alliance is just going to have to understand, it’s going to have to come to terms with the existence of francophones in New Brunswick,” Bateman said. “They know that intellectually, it’s going to have to become a much more existential reality for them if they want to have any influence.”
The People’s Alliance announced the Friday of election week an agreement to provide stability for a Progressive Conservative government, on a “bill-by-bill” basis, for 18 months. But Higgs responded to the announcement saying there is no deal with his party, and clarifying that the two leaders did not meet.
The Liberals have ruled out a formal agreement with the People’s Alliance over differences in “fundamental values,” and the Green Party’s three seats would leave them one short of a majority.
Speaking with the media on Friday, Gallant said he has begun discussions with Coon and that several members of the Progressive Conservative have come forward with concerns about working with the Alliance.
The legislature will be called back on Oct. 23 or sooner, he said.
“We will see whether all Conservatives support the deal that Blaine Higgs and Kris Austin clearly made behind the scenes,” Gallant told reporters in downtown Fredericton.
Experts say the seat counts leave a much greater challenge for the Liberals as all parties enter the nearly uncharted waters of a minority government. Nearly all agree that the easier path forward is an agreement between the Progressive Conservatives and the People’s Alliance.
The parties that form the government will face a much greater challenge: maintaining confidence and holding New Brunswickers together from different regional and linguistic divides. The final results show a clear, red-blue, north-south split.
“There’s a bit of a polarization that has developed as a result of this election, and the Liberals seem to have been the magnet for francophones afraid of what’s going on,” Bateman said. “And that’s an interesting dynamic that we’re going to have to deal with in the next several years.”