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N.B. Brunswick Premier Brian Gallant and PC Leader Blaine Higgs (Photo Credit: Canadian Press)The New Brunswick elections of Sept. 24th ended in a historical impasse. The Brian Gallant Liberals won the popular vote while only clinching 21 seats against the 22 seats won by the Progressive Conservative party led by Blaine Higgs. These results mean that for the first time since 1920, New Brunswick will have a minority government. While both party leaders have confirmed their intentions to form the government, weeks after the ballots have been counted it is still unclear which party will be able to succeed.

What the election reveals is the progressive erosion of the two-party system that has dominated provincial politics for the past century. For the first time since 1991, the two main parties have obtained less than 70 per cent of the popular vote. Brian Gallant himself put it better than anyone: “Clearly there’s some uncertainty tonight”.

Who will form government?

On the historic election night, both of the two main parties claimed victory. However, it would be more accurate to say that they have both lost. In fact, the two parties have seen their share of the popular vote decline from the 2014 elections. The PC party’s share of the vote declined by 2.75 per cent while that of the Liberals decreased by 4.95 per cent. The real victors are the People’s Alliance (PA), a right-wing populist party, and the Green Party. The voters have expressed their growing discontent towards the parties of the establishment.

Results

Voting percentage

         Seats

PC

31.9% (-2.8)

 22 (+1)

Liberals

37.8% (-4.9)

21 (-6)

People’s Alliance           

12.6% (+10.4)

3 (+3)

Green

11.9% (+5.3)

3 (+2)

NDP

5.0% (-8.0)

0 (+0)

At this point it is still difficult to tell what will happen in the legislative assembly. Gallant received the authorization of the lieutenant-governor to seek the confidence of the assembly and try to form government. On Sept. 27, the Liberals declared that they had reached out to the Green Party for support. However, the Liberals are in a tight spot: even with a Green-Liberal alliance of 24 seats, this would not make up the 25 seats needed to form a majority.

Blaine Higgs, on his end, has also met with the lieutenant-governor even though Gallant was given the permission to try to form government. Higgs while campaigning said that he did not exclude the possibility of governing with the support of the PA or any other third party. Higgs did add that an official coalition was out of the question. The possibility of tacit support coming from the PA is certainly not excluded. However, the PA’s position on bilingualism is causing tensions within the ranks of the PC party. Their sole Acadian (francophone) member of the Assembly has stated that he will not accept any compromise on the preservation of bilingualism in New Brunswick.

At this point, it is almost guaranteed that the next government will be short-lived. Elections New Brunswick organisers have already stated that they are preparing for a new election if needed.

The Liberal track record

The Liberals have seen a drop of nearly five per cent in their share of the popular vote compared to the 2014 elections. This loss of support is their payment for the deceptions inflicted on New Brunswick workers. In 2014, they promised to focus on job creation—to create 10,000 jobs in six years, 5,000 of them in the first two years. Four years later, all the Liberals have to show for this is a meagre 1,500 jobs created, representing the eighth lowest rate of job growth in Canada and the lowest in the Maritimes.

The first budget proposed by the Liberals, in 2015-2016, saw 249 teaching jobs cut, an increase on the gas and diesel taxes, and the closure of Service New Brunswick centres. These measures provoked a demonstration in front of the legislature where hundreds of public sector workers expressed their discontent. The Gallant government had, however, warned that the worst was yet to come and that “if we delay these tough decisions, it's going to get even more difficult.” The following budget indeed delivered on this threat and contained an HST increase of two per cent and cuts to 1,300 public sector jobs over five years.

In the course of their mandate, the Gallant Liberals have certainly benefited from an economic situation that let them avoid the worst austerity measures. But despite increasing the corporate tax and the tax on the highest income brackets during their first two years in office, the Liberals have shown on multiple occasions who their real friends are—the big bosses.

In May 2017, the Liberal Party announced that they would offer a non-refundable loan—a donation, essentially—of $6.8 million to TD Bank for the construction of a new centre in Moncton. As for the health sector, the Liberals privatized the home-care and Tele-Care services of the province and signed it over to Medavie in 2017. Medavie, whose CEO is former New Brunswick Conservative Premier Bernard Lord, has been managing the province’s ambulance services since 2007. The ambulance services offered by Medavie have received many complaints about the poor quality of service. The Gallant Liberals renewed the contract for ambulance services with Medavie under an undisclosed agreement in 2017.

Unsurprisingly, the Liberal Party tried to show a progressive face during the recent elections. This tactic of campaigning left and governing for the bosses is well-used and all too familiar. The discontent and eroded confidence among New Brunswickers towards the Liberals after their four years in power proved too much for even this old trick to succeed, and the party’s support plummeted considerably.

Where was the voice of the workers?

With the discontent against the establishment and their two parties growing, there was clearly an opportunity for a left-wing alternative to the status quo to emerge. Unfortunately, the left-wing vote was split. The NDP was the biggest loser on the night of the election, losing eight per cent of their support from 2014. It is mainly through the Green Party that the anger against the status quo was expressed on the left.

The fall of the NDP in this election can probably be attributed to the  right-wing shift in the party over the years of Dominic Cardy’s leadership, from 2011 to 2017. During the 2014 election, he ran on a campaign of balancing the budget by 2018, finding $300 million worth of cuts. Cardy had also made explicit his position in favour of imperialist wars and had purged left-wing members of the party.

The disastrous right-wing leadership of Cardy led to opposition from within. In the fall of 2016 there was a motion from the Fullerton riding calling for Cardy’s removal. Members said that new and former members were signing up as members to vote against Cardy at the 2017 party convention. Some voted with their feet and the NDP lost longtime supporters to the Green Party as a result of the right-wing shift under Cardy. CUPE New Brunswick President Danny Légère said Cardy’s positions drove out of the party many rank-and-file members. In the end, Cardy left in January 2017 claiming that endless infighting, notably with “extremists” and “communists”, forced him to leave.

Thus, only a year before the recent elections, the NDP had to completely rebuild itself and regain the confidence of the workers after Cardy resigned as leader and announced his candidacy in the Progressive Conservative Party. The new NDP leader, Jennifer McKenzie, a self-avowed socialist, promised to realign the party with its roots in the workers’ struggle, pointing to the Tommy Douglas era in Saskatchewan as an example. However, it seems that the party’s shift to the left proved to be too little, too late.

The NDP’s electoral promises were quickly eclipsed by those of the Liberals and the Greens. Part of the NDP’s plan regarding post-secondary education in New Brunswick was to eliminate student loan interest for students who decide to stay in the province after graduation. The Gallant Liberals and the Green Party also promised the same reform. The second part of the NDP’s plan for post-secondary education was to eliminate tuition fees at all the community colleges and to reduce by 25 per cent the tuition fees at public universities. While progressive, these reforms did not clearly distance the party from the others campaigning from the left, and did not entice support from the students. New Brunswick graduates have the privilege to call themselves the most indebted students in Canada, with an average debt 50 per cent higher than the national average. It is apparent that these reforms have not inspired the thousands of students of New Brunswick that are struggling under the weight of their immense student loan debt. What is needed is a universal program for free education for all, and the outright elimination of student debt.

The NDP also promised to increase progressively the minimum wage in New Brunswick from $11.25 to $15 an hour by 2021. However, the Green Party went slightly further by promising $15.25 an hour by 2021, while the Liberals promised to increase it to $14 an hour by that same year.

Instead of the NPD, the Greens were able to channel the discontent of workers and youth on the left. They were seen as the main left-wing alternative to the two main parties. They ran as the party of change, saying that people are “tired of the flip-flopping back and forth between Liberals and Tories. They don’t see much difference between them.” The Greens ran on a moderate left-wing platform that included an increase in social assistance, the promise of developing and maintaining a “convenient and affordable” public transportation system, and the aforementioned minimum wage increase.

The Greens’ three seats actually represent the best result for the left in New Brunswick since 1920, when the United Farmer-Labour parties had 11 MLAs in their caucus. After the experience of the Blairite Cardy regime, there are likely many former NDPers in the Green Party. In this situation, probably the best strategy for the unions and the NDP is to offer a united front with the Greens to oppose the austerity of the Conservatives, the People’s Alliance, and especially the Liberals who cannot be trusted. In no way should the Greens prop up the pro-corporate Liberals, and should instead look towards the left and the labour movement.

It is clear the people of New Brunswick were looking for different solutions and ideas than the ones proposed by the capitalist parties. The students and the workers are looking for an alternative on the left. The economic situation in the province is only going to worsen, and it is the students and workers who will end up paying the most for this. A united front of Greens, the NDP, and the unions could provide that left option when this minority government inevitably collapses. However, if the Greens turn right it will likely be the right-populist People’s Alliance that will capitalize the most from the growing discontent towards the two parties of the establishment.

The rise of the People’s Alliance

The People’s Alliance, formed in 2010, grew from a tiny force in New Brunswick politics to a major factor. The party gained more than 10 per cent higher support in this election compared to 2014, the greatest increase of all the parties. As Don Wright, a political science professor at the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton explained, “The People’s Alliance tapped into that frustration with the governing elites. They call themselves the People’s Alliance for a reason. They’re the people’s party”. The PA was promising to reduce taxes and to stop giving grants to the big businesses. However, the party also ran on a campaign of divisive language policies.

The PA is proposing a series of cuts to the services that are offered to the francophone population in the province under the pretext of avoiding waste of public funds. The cuts proposed include the dissolution of the francophone health network Vitalité and the abolition of the Official Languages Commissioner’s office. The language question has thus come crashing into the campaign, notably with the outcry after the cancelation of the French language leaders’ debate on Radio-Canada, a first since 1999. After the cancellation of the French language leaders’ debate, none of the big parties defended the rights of the francophone population. These issues seem to have benefited the PA most of all.

New Brunswick, whose population is approximately 65-per-cent anglophone and 35-per-cent francophone, has been an officially bilingual province since 1969 (after passing the Official Languages Act) to recognize the rights of all New Brunswickers to services in their language of choice, either French or English. The language question or the bilingualism question in New-Brunswick has taken center stage in the latest elections, brought on primarily by the PA and their divisive position on bilingualism. However, this situation is in no way unique. In fact, the anti-bilingualism and the language question are ingrained in the history of the province. Political opposition to bilingualism has been expressed clearly before from 1989 to 2002, when the Confederation of Regions Party (CoR) strove to repeal the Official Languages Act and to end bilingualism in New Brunswick. The CoR even served as the official opposition to the Liberal government after the elections of 1991, in which they won 21.2 per cent of the vote and eight seats in the legislature. Under one form or another, anti-bilingualism organisations have been present since those days, and one of them eventually crystallized into a political party again in the form of the People’s Alliance in 2010.  

The PA is using the discontent at the establishment and the state bureaucracy for its own benefit by specifically targeting francophone institutions. In this way they try to pit one group of workers against another to gain support. This is an entirely reactionary development. Herb Emery, professor at the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton, correctly points out that “When you have an economy that is struggling… you’re always looking for a scapegoat. It could be newcomers, refugees. Here, they pick on the linguistic divide.” Against these attempts to divide us, we must unite the francophone, anglophone, and First Nations workers on a program of fighting the capitalists. We should lay the blame for the struggling economy on the bosses who care more about their profits than the needs of working people.

The rise of the PA comes as a warning to the working class. The right-wing anti-establishment parties can only be beaten by a bold and genuine anti-establishment party on the left. We cannot let the right divide us; we must act. We need a genuine socialist program, the only program capable of beating both the establishment parties and the right-wing PA.

Inevitable instability and austerity

The present political situation is without precedent and reflects the growing instability in the province. It is currently hard to tell which of the two parties of the establishment will form government and how they will manage it. One thing is abundantly clear, however: whichever party ends up governing the province will inevitably be forced to use drastic austerity measures at one point or another.

During the last four years, the Liberals benefited from the fact that the Canadian economy has not encountered a major crisis, and were able to avoid major austerity measures. Borrowing from the Trudeau Liberals’ playbook, they were even able to show their “progressive” face during this last campaign.

However, many economists are alarmed and pessimistic at the province’s economic outlook. The provincial debt has doubled in the last ten years to $14 billion, which represents around $19,000 per capita. New Brunswick has the lowest employment rate in Canada tied with Newfoundland and Labrador, at 57 per cent. The labour productivity is also one of the lowest in Canada at $34.70 per hour per worker.

Economist Richard Saillant states that the province is in a “death spiral” and that “Whoever is elected will have a choice between presiding over New Brunswick’s downfall or putting it back on the path towards sustainability”. Herb Emery from the University of New Brunswick believes that the uncertainty about a number of business costs that are within the province's control is thwarting economic growth, including power rates, natural gas, corporate taxes, carbon pricing, and pay equity. "How do we make sure that we haven't made it a disincentive to invest at the same time we're trying to be more sharing in terms of the gains?” Emery asked. Saillant in his book Over The Cliff? writes that “An aging population, out-migration, diminished economic opportunities and at times profligate governments put New Brunswick in the dubious company of Greece, Portugal and Italy, only with more trees and less Old World charm.”

The Globe and Mail editorial about the elections mentions the necessity of “reining in public spending, eliminating budget deficits and tackling the province’s public debt”. They put forward that if the next government wants to avoid the “tough choices, debt-holders and rating agencies may eventually force their hand”. The common thread among these analyses is clear: austerity, sooner or later, will be demanded by the capitalists.

While the Progressive Conservatives have not mentioned the need for possible austerity measures, they did promise to balance the budget in two years. Included in these budget calculations, however, is the removal through retirement and attrition of more than 600 government jobs, thereby cutting good job opportunities for the youth of the province. Blaine Higgs’ past should also serve as an indicator of what is to come. Higgs, former Irving Oil Ltd. executive, was the finance minister under the 2010-2014 Conservative government which saw cuts in healthcare and education among other areas. Higgs said back in June that  “It isn’t about cutting. It’s about spending and getting results. If we’re spending money and not getting results, we’ll stop spending that money.”

As for the Liberals, they have promised to make the province deficit-free within three years. But with the crushing weight of the public debt and the general decline of the provincial economy, only one choice will be available to the next government, whether Liberal or Conservative: austerity now, or austerity later. This is the alternative that we are offered under the capitalist system.

For these reasons, the workers’ movement must organize and prepare itself to resist these inevitable measures. None of the two establishment parties have a mandate coming out of this election, and they have even less of a mandate to attack the workers. The Higgs Progressive Conservatives have promised to balance the books in two years without any cuts to the health and education sectors, and without slashing public sector jobs. With the economic crisis coming sooner or later, Higgs’ party could not hold that promise if they were to form government. We must be ready for the struggles ahead: There is no time to lose!

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