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New Brunswick Tories win most seats, but Liberals will try to stay in power

Last Updated Sep 25, 2018 at 12:00 am EST

New Brunswick Progressive Conservative Leader Blaine Higgs addresses supporters at his campaign headquarters in Quispamsis, N.B. on Monday, Sept. 24, 2018. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andrew Vaughan

Voters in New Brunswick have turned have their backs on the province’s entrenched two-party system for the first time in a generation, electing enough third party candidates to leave the Liberals and Progressive Conservatives in a virtual dead heat in a minority legislature.

Four hours after the polls closed Monday, the Tories had won 22 seats, the incumbent Liberals had 21, the right-of-centre People’s Alliance had three and the Greens three. The NDP was shut out of the race.

A total of 25 seats is needed for a majority in the 49-seat house, which means the third parties were poised to play a key role in deciding who governs the province: incumbent Liberal Brian Gallant, who is seeking a second term in office, or Progressive Conservative Blaine Higgs.

Even though Higgs won the most seats, parliamentary tradition suggests that the incumbent premier will be given the first opportunity to govern by the lieutenant-governor.

Higgs claimed victory Monday, saying his team had a mandate from the people.

“As in any race, the one who has the most numbers wins,” he said as supporters roared their approval from a former warehouse in Quispamsis. “I’ve been speaking with some constitutional experts — so we’re good.”

As Higgs spoke, the final seat numbers appeared to change, leaving to two main parties temporarily in a tie at 21.

“It’s going to be a long night,” he said. “I guess probably Brian Gallant and I will both be lined up at the lieutenant-governor’s office in the morning.”

Gallant made it clear he plans to meet Tuesday with the lieutenant-governor to explain that he intends to continue governing the province by securing support in the legislature on a vote-by-vote basis.

“Clearly there’s some uncertainty tonight,” Gallant told supporters at an elementary school in Grande-Digue, which is along the province’s east coast.

“There is, for the first time in this generation, a minority situation. We have heard New Brunswickers loud and clear … New Brunswickers have sent third parties into the legislature in a way they haven’t done before.”

Pundits say the People’s Alliance Party, led by Kris Austin, is more closely aligned with the Tories than any other party. And the Greens share more in common with the Liberals.

“This is what victory looks like folks,” Austin said Monday night, adding that he’s willing to work with any party “that has some of the ideas that we have been pushing.”

The party’s “common sense” platform took aim at official bilingualism, saying the dual systems in health care and school busing are costing the province too much money.

“Part of being a minority government is negotiation, it’s compromise, it’s working with all other parties,” Austin told a cheering crowd.

The province has had virtually no experience with minority governments. The last time a third party held the balance of power in the legislature was October 1920 when two farmers’ parties managed to win 11 seats between them.

When asked during the campaign what would happen if his government was reduced to a minority, Gallant said he wouldn’t work with the Progressive Conservatives or the People’s Alliance, saying those parties don’t share Liberal values.

Both Green Leader David Coon and Higgs had declined to discuss their options in detail, but Higgs said he was willing to work with anybody.

Coon made history by winning the party’s first-ever seat in 2014. The soft-spoken politician promised to promote a greener economy, a higher minimum wage and a basic income guarantee program.

“It looks like I’m going to be joined by other Green MLAs,” he told his supporters Monday. “I know for sure we will be able to applaud each other’s speeches.”

It’s not unusual for minority governments to survive by seeking compromises with the other parties.

However, the Tories and the third parties also have the option of combining forces, either through a coalition or some less formal arrangement, which would set in motion a high-stakes process that could see the Liberals returned to the opposition benches.

That’s what happened in British Columbia in May 2017, when Liberal Premier Christy Clark squeaked out a razor-thin victory over the NDP, with the Green party holding the balance of power for the first time in Canadian history.

At the time, Clark had the option of dissolving the B.C. legislature and calling for another election, but she chose instead to ask the lieutenant-governor for the chance to govern. Seven weeks later, the Liberal government was defeated on a non-confidence vote in the legislature.

British Columbia’s New Democrats then formed a minority government with the support of the Greens.

Unlike other provinces, New Brunswick has never developed a strong third party tradition, said Donald Wright, political science professor at the University of New Brunswick’s Fredericton campus.

“The NDP was never able to make inroads into the province primarily because the Liberal party really scooped up that mass of voters along the north shore, and created an historical loyalty between the Liberal party and the Acadians,” he said.

In this election, nearly 30 per cent of New Brunswickers voted for a third party, a number Wright called “staggering.”

During the 32-day campaign, Gallant offered a big-spending platform, a strategy borrowed from Justin Trudeau’s winning 2015 election bid.

By contrast, Higgs — a 64-year-old former Irving Oil executive — campaigned on a tight-fisted platform that calls for “common-sense ideas that don’t cost much.”

On the campaign trail, Gallant and Higgs commanded most of the attention, and the two men couldn’t have been more different.

Gallant, a lawyer and the youngest premier in Canada at 36, is a fresh-faced, fluently bilingual champion of gender equality, healthy eating and exercise. Recently married, the former tennis instructor was once crowned Mr. New Brunswick at a provincial competition.

Higgs is a dapper, grey-haired former finance minister and grandfather who has described citizens as customers, and has likened governing to running a business “and getting results.”

At the beginning of the New Brunswick campaign, the Liberals held 24 seats in the 49-seat legislature, the Progressive Conservatives had 21 and the Green party had one seat. There was one Independent and two vacancies.

Gallant was seeking a second consecutive majority government, but recent history wasn’t on his side. No government has won two terms in office since 2003.

The Liberals won the popular vote, taking in 37.8 per cent of the ballots, but it did not translate into seats. In keeping with traditional voting patterns, too many of the Liberal votes were concentrated in French-speaking ridings. In the Miramichi and Acadian Peninsula, the Liberals won 46 per cent of the vote.

The next government will be faced with some tough choices. The province has been saddled with 11 consecutive projected budget deficits.

Meanwhile, the net debt is expected to reach $14.4 billion by the end of this fiscal year, and the province remains at the bottom of the list with Newfoundland and Labrador when it comes to economic growth.

The NDP, led by Jennifer McKenzie for just over a year, failed to make much of an impression on voters, winning only five per cent of the popular vote and no seats. She ran 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.

“I want to congratulate premier-designate,” McKenzie said in her speech Monday night, and then paused and looked around, “Gallant or Higgs?”