New Brunswick: Trick or Treat

Column / Lori Turnbull

Whoever said provincial politics is boring has had to eat those words over the past year and a half, as elections in British Columbia, Ontario and, most recently New Brunswick, have produced very interesting, if sometimes ambiguous, results.

When the votes were counted in New Brunswick on September 24, it was not clear who would form the government. The magic number for a majority is 25. The incumbent Liberals elected only 21 MLAs and the Progressive Conservatives elected 22; the Greens and the People’s Alliance elected three MLAs each.  

Pre-election polls had favoured Brian Gallant’s Liberals to win the night. But as election day drew nearer, the Liberal spread in the popular vote contracted. Though they ultimately still led the popular vote, it was not enough for them to maintain a plurality of seats. 

Whoever ends up occupying the premier’s office will need a partner to get things done in the legislature. When a similar outcome occurred in BC in 2017, the NDP and the Greens decided against forming a formal coalition and instead opted for a co-signed agreement of confidence and supply designed to provide stable governance for four years. 

Among the NB parties’ elected members, it is fair to say that there is no natural or easy alliance. Though all of the parties have roughly the same problems and challenges in their lines of sight, their approaches to defining and resolving these challenges is different and, in some cases, irreconcilable. The hostility of the People’s Alliance toward bilingualism makes it a significant political liability for the mainstream parties that have worked to protect and entrench bilingualism in the province.

The day after the election, Gallant met with Lieutenant Governor Jocelyne Roy-Vienneau to obtain permission to remain premier for the time being. The primary role of the lieutenant governor is to ensure that there is always a premier (the individual who holds the confidence of the legislature, regardless of party standings or popular vote). As the incumbent, Gallant remains in office throughout the election period but in a caretaker capacity until either another premier is sworn in or he himself has demonstrated that he can hold the confidence of the Legislative Assembly. Therefore, he could not drag his feet. 

On October 23, the legislature met and selected Liberal MLA Daniel Guitard as the speaker. The Speech from the Throne was read the same day.  Though the text of the speech borrowed heavily from opposition party playbooks, it is not likely to survive a vote; Gallant doesn’t have the numbers. The premier would then go to the lieutenant governor to request that the legislature be dissolved, as Christy Clark did in 2017 after losing the vote on the throne speech. Like her, Gallant would say that the current legislature is unworkable with another election the only way to sort out this mess. In BC, however, the partnership between the Greens and the NDP, backed up by the agreement of confidence and supply, made it difficult for the lieutenant governor to deny the NDP the chance at forming a government. In New Brunswick, in the absence of such a partnership, the lieutenant governor would have to decide whether to give Progressive Conservative Leader Blaine Higgs a chance to govern or heed Gallant’s advice.

If the lieutenant governor denies Gallant’s request for dissolution, Higgs’ numbers are only marginally better than Gallant’s. A partnership with one of the smaller parties would bring his total to 25 for a majority. He could govern as long as the partnership lasts, presuming that Guitard chooses to remain the speaker following a loss of confidence for the Liberals. If Guitard resigns, forcing the Higgs government to put up its own speaker, this outcome would force the new speaker to break every tied vote in the deadlocked legislature going forward, an undesirous outcome that is inconsistent with the spirit of responsible government and the independence of the speaker’s chair.  

If Gallant gets his dissolution, the new election would kick off in November. None of the parties has the money for this. Voter turnout would likely be low. The smaller parties would have the most to lose, given their historic showings in the September election. Out of fear of another divided legislature, voters might choose to park their votes with either of the two traditional parties, each of which would offer a mixed-bag of promises in a power-hungry attempt to appeal as widely as possible.  

Lori Turnbull is the Director of the School of Public Administration at Dalhousie University, fellow at the Public Policy Forum, and deputy editor of Canadian Government Executive magazine. She is co-author of Democratizing the Constitution: Reforming Responsible Government, winner of the Donner Prize.