FREDERICTON - David Alward is counting on voters to back his plan to develop New Brunswick's natural resources as a path to prosperity when the Progressive Conservatives make their case for a second term in office when the province's election campaign officially begins Thursday.
The 32-day campaign is expected to be fought on which party can improve the economic fortunes of a province that is mired in red ink and sported the second highest unemployment rate in the country at 10 per cent in July.
Alward has faced a backlash as he tries to develop the province's natural resources through a new forestry plan that increases the amount of wood that can be cut on Crown land and the creation of a shale gas industry.
Despite the opposition, Alward has pressed ahead, saying that not proceeding with shale gas exploration would be too risky for the province's economy.
"We're saying 'Yes' to developing our shale gas resources, and we're saying 'Yes' to developing natural resources in a responsible way," Alward said this week.
First Nations chiefs in the province have gone to court seeking an injunction to block the forestry deal, and testing work for shale gas by a company in the Rexton area became the scene of a riot last year when the RCMP enforced an injunction to end a blockade at a compound where exploration equipment was stored.
Before the campaign formally began, Liberal Leader Brian Gallant focused many of his promises on the economy and cutting a deficit forecast to be $387.3 million this fiscal year.
Gallant said his party would find at least $250 million in savings from the provincial budget and redirect the money into areas that would create jobs and grow the economy.
"We need to fill the skills gap," Gallant said. "That's one of the biggest complaints of businesses in the province, so we need to invest strategically in education, training and literacy."
The Liberals have been critical of the Alward government's failure to honour a promise in the last election to balance the budget by the end of its mandate.
The Tories now say they can have a surplus in three years, while the Liberals said Wednesday it would take them six years to balance the books. In the meantime, the Liberals would add $1.5 billion to the $12.2 billion provincial debt.
The Progressive Conservatives had 41 members in the legislature before dissolution, the Liberals 13 and there was one Independent. This election will be fought on a new electoral map that cuts the number of seats in the legislature to 49 from 55.
Don Desserud, a political scientist at the University of Prince Edward Island and a longtime observer of New Brunswick politics, said voters are getting tired of the main two parties in the province.
"People are changing their vote, they're changing their affiliation with parties because they're all seeking that magic solution — that great, white knight that's going to solve the great list of problems that the provinces have," Desserud said.
He said Alward has no assurance of getting a second term. The former Liberal government led by Shawn Graham became the first one-term government in the province's history when it went down to defeat four years ago.
New Democrat Leader Dominic Cardy is hoping voter discontent will prompt people to take a good look at his party when they cast their votes on Sept. 22.
"We've got the party ready to govern and a team of candidates ready to be cabinet ministers," he said.
The New Democrats have attracted Bev Harrison, who sat in the legislature as a Tory, and former Liberals Abel LeBlanc and Kelly Lamrock to run as candidates. But the NDP has never elected more than one member to the legislature.
Geoff Martin, a political scientist at Mount Allison University in Sackville, N.B., said the new candidates from other parties could be seen as a negative among staunch New Democrats as the party looks for a breakthrough in this campaign.
"I guess I would be a little surprised to see a lot of success for Bev Harrison, Abel LeBlanc, Kelly Lamrock and so on, in part because they do have baggage and they were associated with a different political party," Martin said.