The most interesting election result in Canada this year is unfolding in a province too often mocked as the least interesting one in the federation: New Brunswick.
Now embroiled in a fascinating tug of war between Liberals and Conservatives — over nothing less than who will end up as premier — the province’s political drama could even foreshadow some bigger trends to play out on the national stage in 2019.
Populism, diversity, environmentalism and the power of smaller parties are all part of the mix in New Brunswick, as is the starting-to-be-familiar tension this fall between the rule of law and raw, majority-rule democracy.
Fresh out of Ontario’s recent dalliance with opting out of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, this explosion of political uncertainty in New Brunswick is yet another story of how the Crown and the constitution cannot be taken for granted, even in 2018.
On Tuesday, New Brunswick’s Lieutenant-Governor waded into the contentious results of Monday’s election and gave Liberal Leader Brian Gallant the right to stay on as premier, even though Gallant won fewer seats than his Conservative rivals. It’s not like Jocelyne Roy-Vienneau had a choice — this is how parliamentary democracy works.
By Tuesday, Higgs was forced to postpone plans to move into the premier’s office, thwarted by the constitutional rule that allows incumbent premiers to have first crack at forming government in a minority legislature.
“I’d like to just get on with it. I think all this is doing is prolonging it,” Higgs said on Tuesday. You could say that this Conservative leader is finding, as is Premier Doug Ford in Ontario, that power isn’t simply a numbers game when it comes to constitutional law and convention.
The fact is that neither New Brunswick leader has the 25 seats necessary for a majority government, so the future premier will be the one who can woo support from one of the smaller parties that made huge gains on Monday night: the People’s Alliance or the Green Party, each of which won three seats.
Confusing? Yes. Constitutional? Absolutely. What makes it compelling, though, is how this vote result could be a portent of things to come on the larger national stage.
We should assume that in the days and weeks ahead, federal parties will be studying whether the dynamics at work in the New Brunswick vote are going to be factors in the 2019 federal election.
Could smaller parties, for instance, become kingmakers in 2019 as they are in New Brunswick in the fall of 2018?
Certainly, Green Party Leader Elizabeth May is seeing possibilities. Slowly, steadily, Greens are expanding their footprint in the provinces, winning their first-ever seat at Queen’s Park in June and now increased representation in New Brunswick. Including British Columbia and Prince Edward Island, there are now a total of nine Greens in four provincial legislatures across Canada.
New Brunswick’s results also might prove encouraging to Maxime Bernier, leader of the newly formed People’s Party of Canada, whose breakaway movement shares more than a similar name with New Brunswick’s People’s Alliance.
Both parties see themselves as populist and conservative, and challengers to conventional wisdom on accommodating diversity — the People’s Alliance against bilingualism, Bernier’s party against what it calls “extreme multiculturalism.”
It should be noted that this isn’t New Brunswick’s first flirtation with this kind of political force — the old Confederation of Regions party made inroads in New Brunswick in the 1990s. Nor is this the first time that New Brunswick has produced election results for the history books. In 1987, Frank McKenna won every seat in the Legislature — a feat that had only happened once before in the history of the federation.
New Brunswick, in short, has been very interesting before, despite its reputation as the province where not much happens. And it promises to be worth watching for some time to come — not just for who eventually wins, but for what we can learn about politics to come in Canada as a whole in 2019.
Susan Delacourt is the Star’s Ottawa bureau chief and a columnist covering national politics. Reach her via email: email@example.com or follow her on Twitter: @susandelacourt