FREDERICTON — New Brunswick is in uncharted territory today, with the province's two main political parties manoeuvring for power after an election that ended in a near dead heat — and two smaller parties potentially holding the keys.
Observers say backroom deals brokered over the coming hours and days could determine whether a tenable coalition is formed — with either Liberal Brian Gallant or Tory Blaine Higgs as premier — or whether New Brunswickers are back at the polls before Christmas.
After all the votes were counted Monday, the seat count sat at 22 for the Progressive Conservatives, and 21 for the Liberals.
Donald Wright, a political science professor at the University of New Brunswick, says the lieutenant-governor will likely first invite the incumbent, Gallant, to find the confidence of the house.
He says the Liberal leader is likely to approach the Green party — which won three seats, including that of Leader David Coon — as they are more "ideologically compatible."
Wright says if Gallant cannot find the confidence of the house, Higgs will be given a chance — presumably through a deal with the right-of-centre People's Alliance, which also won three seats.
Both Gallant and Higgs indicated in their speeches late Monday that they would seek to govern.
"New Brunswickers ... want us to work collaboratively as political parties to get things done," Gallant said.
The province has had virtually no experience with minority governments. The last time a third party held the balance of power in the legislature was October 1920 when two farmers' parties managed to win 11 seats between them.
When asked during the campaign what would happen if his government was reduced to a minority, Gallant said he wouldn't work with the Progressive Conservatives or the People's Alliance, saying those parties don't share Liberal values.
Both Green Leader David Coon and Higgs had declined to discuss their options.
Coon made history by winning the party's first-ever seat in 2014. The soft-spoken politician promised to promote a greener economy, a higher minimum wage and a basic income guarantee program.
"It looks like I'm going to be joined by other Green MLAs,'' he told his supporters Monday. "I know for sure we will be able to applaud each other's speeches.''
"We will be open to do what we can to listen to other political parties and do the best we can on a vote by vote basis."
Higgs, meantime, claimed his party had won a mandate.
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"Perhaps Brian Gallant and I will both be lining up at the lieutenant-governor's in the morning," Higgs said.
Wright said if neither main party can gain confidence of the house, the legislature will be dissolved and another election will be held.
Political scientist Mario Levesque said one issue with such a close election is that the party or coalition in power will have to elect a Speaker.
"The challenge here is even if they do form a pact — the Alliance goes with the Conservatives or the Greens with the Liberals — there is not enough there to elect the Speaker," said Levesque, a professor at Mount Allison University in Sackville, N.B.
"If the Alliance goes with the Conservatives, that's 25, so a majority," he said. "But then you have to take one away for the Speaker, and that gives them 24, which means they're still vulnerable to a tie vote in the legislature."
Erin Crandall, a professor in the politics department at Acadia University in Wolfville, N.S., called the emergence of two third parties "the big story for this election."
"This is uncharted territory for New Brunswick, which is historically a two-party system," said Crandall, who is originally from Moncton. "It's always been a question of who's going to be in a majority government — the PCs or Liberals."
She said a minority government will change the dynamics of governing in New Brunswick, making third parties the "major influencer" in the legislature.
Crandall said Canadian political parties usually agree to co-operate for a certain period of time, without formal coalitions as in other countries.
"In Canada, you usually have one party governing and they rely on the goodwill of these smaller parties," she explained. "Nobody wants an election right away so probably they'll make things work."