Canada

New Brunswick’s moment of truth

Is the tide turning against Camille Thériault’s Liberals?

John DeMont June 7 1999
Canada

New Brunswick’s moment of truth

Is the tide turning against Camille Thériault’s Liberals?

John DeMont June 7 1999

New Brunswick’s moment of truth

Is the tide turning against Camille Thériault’s Liberals?

John DeMont

No one has ever called Camille Theriault a polished, confident public speaker. The 44-year-old New Brunswick premier looked like he would rather be anywhere other than facing off with the other party leaders as their televised debate began in a Moncton CBC studio last week. He stumbled through his carefully scripted opening remarks, and seemed off balance when NDP Leader Elizabeth Weir, 51, and Bernard Lord, 33, the youthful-looking Conservative leader, hammered away at his government’s record.

In the end, all even Liberal loyalists could say about Thériaulfs performance was that he dodged the knockout punch. “For an incumbent premier, a tie is as good as a win,” declared Mario Theriault, the leader’s brother and Liberal communications director, after the debate.

It would be a stretch for even the most partisan Liberals to call the current campaign a good one for their party. In the run-up to the election call on May 8, Grit strategists conceded they might lose a few of their 45 seats. That, though, was before the campaign began. Now, as New Brunswickers prepare to vote on June 7, the momentum has shifted to the Tories—who went into the campaign with just nine of the legislature’s 55 seats—and the Liberals suddenly find themselves in their first real election battle since Frank McKenna took every seat from Richard Hatfield’s Conservatives in 1987. A fourth consec-

utive Liberal majority may still be within reach—but for the first time, some Grit strategists are talking about a “loss scenario.”

That scenario at least kicked some life into an election campaign that had been a decidedly low-key affair until last week. There have been none of the

negative TV “attack” commercials that marked, or marred, the race in Ontario. In fact, with the New Brunswick Liberals planning to spend no more than $700,000 and the Tories only $500,000, there has been no blanket of advertising over the province. The first half of the campaign consisted largely of Theriault and Lord trying to one-up each other with bland promises to cut taxes, invest in health care and stimulate jobs. The strategy, however, is clearly failing the ruling Liberals. A poll by Monctonbased Omnifacts Research for ATV News on Friday, put the Tories ahead following the debate, with 32 per cent of respondents to 27 per cent for the Liberals, nine for the NDP, with 29 per cent undecided. Another poll, to be released

this week by Halifax-based Corporate Research Associates Inc., shows that Liberal support has dropped 10 points in three months, to 44 per cent of decided voters, with the Tories at 37 per cent—a 10-point rise during the same period. As election day looms, there is still a huge block of uncommitted voters—as high as 49 per cent of the electorate, according to a recent CBC poll. And that, says Don Desserud, a political scientist at the University of New Brunswick at Saint John, may be a sign of genuine public confusion. “For voters, the Liberals used to mean Frank McKenna,” Desserud says. “Now that he’s gone, things have changed.”

New Brunswick's altered political landscape has been evident in the course of the campaign. The self-immolation of the anti-French Confederation of Regions party, which formed the official opposition after the 1991 election with eight seats, but disappeared in the 1995 election, has sent many of its supporters in the English-speaking, southern part of the province back to the Tory party. But the Liberals are struggling to hold on to I seats in places like the I largely Acadian northern peninsula, where the economy is in shambles and where, in the 1997 federal election, New Democrat Yvon Godin, a labour leader, unseated Liberal cabinet minister Doug Young in a surprise upset in Acadie/Bathurst.

Analysts do not have to search far for an explanation. Theriault, who took over from McKenna after the former premier stepped down in 1997, lacks McKennas charisma and his ability to carry ridings on the strength of his own appeal—as even his own party members acknowledge. The result: with no burning issue emerging to focus the attention of voters, the Liberals find themselves in tough individual races for many of the 55 seats. They will be decided on local issues—with Liberal candidates fighting for their political lives. EH]