FREDERICTON - Premier David Alward has shuffled his cabinet a year before the New Brunswick election as his Progressive Conservative government struggles with sagging popularity and tries to convince the public its hopes for an economic turnaround will materialize.
The shakeup is a signal that Alward wants a reboot as he gears up for the vote on Sept. 22, 2014, said one political observer.
"It is definitely about a reset and a positioning for the next year and letting New Brunswickers know that it has got its eyes focused on growth and jobs," said Tom Bateman, a political scientist at St. Thomas University in Fredericton.
Alward announced the shuffle on the government's website Thursday, framing it as one that would support economic and resource development. The changes, which take effect Monday, saw no one from the backbenches promoted and no ministers dropped from cabinet.
Alward's office said he was unavailable for an interview. Instead, deputy premier Paul Robichaud was made available to comment.
Robichaud said Alward did not bring in any fresh faces because he has confidence in those around him.
"The premier had a lot of faith and trust with the team around the cabinet table," Robichaud said.
"He wanted to put the right players at the right department to fulfil our agenda and to create more jobs and prosperity in New Brunswick."
The changes will see Health Minister Hugh (Ted) Flemming take on the added responsibility of attorney general, while Robichaud will leave his post as economic development minister to become the natural resources minister.
Other new assignments include Bruce Fitch becoming the economic development minister, Bruce Northrup overseeing Public Safety and Marie-Claude Blais leaving her portfolio of Justice for Education. Troy Lifford will take over Blais's former role as justice minister.
Liberal Opposition Leader Brian Gallant said the shuffle was predictable given the province's struggles to grow the economy.
"This is an old political tactic," Gallant said.
"When things are going bad politically, you make a shuffle to try to distract people and give them the impression that you are addressing some of the problems and concerns."
Earlier this week, the Royal Bank predicted New Brunswick would have the slowest growing economy in the country at 0.8 per cent this year. The province also has an unemployment rate of 10.7 per cent, tied with Newfoundland and Labrador for the highest in the country.
The changes also come following polls over the last two years that suggest public support for his government is falling.
"We've seen since the fall of 2011 climbing voter support for the Liberal party and a subsequent decline in voter support for the Progressive Conservatives," said Margaret Chapman, vice-president of Halifax-based polling firm Corporate Research Associates.
In recent months, Alward has said large projects such as the Energy East Pipeline would spur economic growth in the province.
Bateman said Alward's message of prosperity may not resonate with the electorate next year when most jobs that would come from the west-to-east pipeline or a burgeoning shale gas sector could be years away.
"This is something the government is going to have to persuade New Brunswickers of ... that it is laying the necessary groundwork whose benefits will come within the foreseeable but not immediate future," he said.
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