POLITICS

New Brunswick byelection to put province's Liberal leader to the test

04/14/2013 03:00 EDT | Updated 06/14/2013 05:12 EDT
FREDERICTON - Brian Gallant has a lot at stake Monday when he makes his second attempt to win a seat in the New Brunswick legislature, but this time it's in a riding with a long history of Liberal support and he is the party's leader.

Since Gallant became leader last October he has only been able to watch the proceedings of the legislature, lacking a seat that would also allow him to assume the role of Opposition leader.

That could change Monday when the young lawyer challenges Jimmy Bourque of the Progressive Conservatives and the New Democrat's Susan Levi-Peters in a byelection in the riding of Kent on the eastern coast of the province.

The riding has been a Liberal stronghold for nearly a century, but Gallant said he's not taking that for granted.

"You have to make sure you work really hard to earn every vote and really hard to show people you want to represent them," he said. "You have to take no votes for granted and no support for granted."

The byelection was called when former Liberal premier Shawn Graham quit politics after he was found to be in a conflict of interest over a $50-million loan guarantee his government gave to a construction firm in 2009. The province's conflict of interest commissioner said Graham should have removed himself from cabinet discussions about the loan guarantee to Atcon because it had ties to his father, Alan.

The elder Graham had also represented the Kent riding and was first elected in 1967, beginning 46 years in which the riding was represented by a Graham.

Still, Gallant said he has been aggressively campaigning door-to-door in an effort to make a name for himself.

"I think people are going to base their vote on the individual, their vision, their ideas and what they want to bring to the table," he said.

Gallant, 30, is not new to campaigning. In 2006 he made an unsuccessful bid to unseat Conservative Bernard Lord, who was premier at the time, in the riding of Moncton East, but garnered almost 41 per cent of the vote.

Despite the Liberal leadership campaign, political scientist Geoff Martin of Mount Allison University said little is known about Gallant's stand on many issues.

"I'm sure their goal is to have Mr. Gallant win a seat in the legislature and then he builds up his reputation with New Brunswickers," Martin said.

"The more you declare your positions the more vulnerable you are, and also you can be held to that."

When the byelection was called, Premier David Alward said the vote would be a chance for voters to send a message to the Liberals for their handling of the Atcon case. Despite millions of dollars in government assistance, the company went bankrupt.

But in recent days, deputy premier Paul Robichaud conceded his party could be facing a challenge in Kent.

"We don't have a strong history as a party to represent that riding," he said.

Martin said a win for the Tories or New Democrats would be huge because there is a strong perception that Gallant has the edge.

"I think because it is a safe Liberal seat and a traditional Liberal seat, I think he (Gallant) needs a convincing victory," Martin said.

"I think if he squeaks by or if it ends up being a three-person race or if somehow he was defeated that would not be good in the sense of the strength of the Liberal party or his appeal."

All three candidates say Employment Insurance and shale gas exploration have emerged as the main issues during the campaign.

Gallant said many people in the riding are worried that the practice of hydraulic fracturing to extract shale gas could put water supplies at risk, and he supports his party's call for a moratorium on exploration.

Meanwhile, the Conservative candidate said he's assuring people that the industry can be safe.

"The Alward government has said it will only go forward in a responsible way," said Bourque, a small business owner who has worked as executive assistant to two provincial cabinet ministers.

Levi-Peters of the NDP says there is a lot of seasonal employment in the riding and the federal changes to EI will hurt.

"The provincial government should be pushing the federal government more on the EI changes," said Levi-Peters, a former chief of the Elsipogtog First Nation.

She ran for the NDP in Kent during the last provincial election in 2010 and captured 15 per cent of the vote, but lost to Shawn Graham.

More than 1,400 of the 8,800 eligible voters in the riding cast their ballots in advance of the byelection.

Entering the byelection, the Progressive Conservatives had 41 seats in the legislature. The Liberals had 12, while there was one Independent and the vacancy in the riding of Kent.