New Brunswickers Conclude Voting Amid the Turmoil of the COVID-19 Pandemic

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A resident arrives to vote in the New Brunswick provincial election at St. Mark’s Catholic Church in Quispamsis, N.B. on Monday, Sept. 14, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andrew Vaughan

Almost all polls have closed across New Brunswick after a highly unusual provincial election campaign — the first in Canada to be called during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Technical glitches at some polling stations soon after they opened meant they had to be kept open past the 8 p.m. deadline.

To prevent the spread of the virus, few candidates campaigned door-to-door, and those who did were careful to wear a mask and stand well back when speaking to voters. There were no handshakes, no kissing of babies, no big rallies.

Campaign literature was sent through the mail and the party leaders took part in outdoor events that were livestreamed, as masked candidates stood well in the background to comply with physical distancing rules. And at some campaign stops, Progressive Conservative Premier Blaine Higgs wore a full face shield.

Last month, Higgs announced his decision to seek a second mandate only 21 months into his first term, saying the province’s minority government had become too shaky.

He said a majority Tory government could provide the stability needed to deal with the economic fallout caused by the pandemic. And the 66-year-old former Irving Oil executive cast himself as a dull but dependable in a crisis.

“Maybe I’m boring, but I’m no surprise,” he said last month. “I’m consistent. You can trust me.”

At dissolution, there were 20 Tories, 20 Liberals, three Greens, three People’s Alliance members, one Independent and two vacancies. At least 25 seats are needed for a majority in the 49-seat house.

While Higgs won praise for his leadership since the pandemic was declared on March 11, his political rivals accused him of attempting a power grab while the electorate was distracted with more pressing concerns.

During the 28-day campaign, Liberal Leader Kevin Vickers accused Higgs of listening to political advisers rather than the people of New Brunswick, arguing that the election wasn’t wanted or needed.

“Blaine Higgs chose to send New Brunswickers to the polls in the middle of a pandemic,” the 63-year-old former RCMP officer said on Day 1 of the campaign. “The premier of New Brunswick chose political opportunism instead of the health and safety of our citizens.”

Acclaimed Liberal leader in 2019, Vickers also served as sergeant-at-arms in the House of Commons, where in 2014 he was credited with fatally shooting a lone gunman who had fired a rifle inside Centre Block.

When the election campaign started on Aug. 17, Green party Leader David Coon also accused Higgs of political opportunism.

“It’s very alarming that the premier has called an election during the pandemic when people are so concerned with their health, with the health of their children, the health of their elders and their parents, when so many other concerns are going on,” he said as the campaign began.

In recent election campaigns in New Brunswick, voters were confronted with polarizing issues, such as hydraulic fracturing, skyrocketing auto insurance rates or privatization of the province’s Crown-owned utility, NB Power.

But this election was all about the province’s response to COVID-19.

New Brunswick has one of the lowest levels of infection in Canada — bested only by P.E.I. and the territories. That fact became Higgs’ key talking point during the election race. He also cited forecasts suggesting the province was leading the country in terms of an economic recovery.

By contrast, Vickers took a gloomier view, saying the Tories were pretending that everything had returned to normal, when “businesses are still feeling the repercussions of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

The leaders of the smaller parties warned voters against electing a majority government, saying the minority arrangement had performed well with an all-party cabinet committee handling the COVID-19 crisis.

“We cannot go back to the old days of one party holding all the power,” said Kris Austin, leader of the right-leaning People’s Alliance party.

Mackenzie Thomason, 23-year-old interim leader of the New Democratic Party, said the smaller parties were there to “keep the big parties’ feet to the fire.” The NDP didn’t win any seats in the 2018 election, which marked the first time New Brunswickers had elected a minority government since 1920.

No government in New Brunswick has won two consecutive terms since Bernard Lord led the Tories to victory in 2003.

— By Kevin Bissett in Quispamsis, N.B., and Michael MacDonald in Halifax

 
   

© The Canadian Press

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