New Brunswick election: Voters head to the polls amid coronavirus pandemic

Voters in New Brunswick head to the polls Monday after a brief provincial election campaign notable for the unusual steps candidates had to take to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic.

Thanks to health and hygiene rules, there were no handshakes, no kissing of babies, no rallies and no community barbecues.

Much of the low-key campaign was conducted on social media, though there was some door-to-door campaigning — all done at a safe distance.

Progressive Conservative Premier Blaine Higgs — who often wore a full face shield while on the hustings — called the election only 21 months into his first term, saying his minority government wasn’t stable enough.

He told voters he needed a majority to govern a province initially left reeling by the pandemic.

Anything less, he said, would put the province at risk.

“I know that this year has been tough and has been filled with many unexpected challenges,” Higgs said Sunday in an email to party supporters.

“But it is thanks to our … government’s strong leadership that our province saw one of the lowest rates of COVID-19 in all of Canada. We have worked hard to keep our citizens safe and now we are working hard to safely reopen our economy.”

At dissolution, there were 20 Tories, 20 Liberals, three Greens, three People’s Alliance members, one Independent and two vacancies. At least 25 seats are needed for a majority in the 49-seat house. Recent polls put the Tories well ahead of their rivals.

Liberal Leader Kevin Vickers said the campaign had been a challenge, though he said online tools were used to get the party’s message out to the public.

During the 28-day race, Vickers frequently took aim at Higgs for calling a snap election in the middle of a pandemic, suggesting the premier was putting political opportunism ahead of public safety.

Vickers has said the province needs a growth agenda, which he said is in contrast to what he called Higgs’ unspoken plan to impose big spending cuts. The Liberal leader has also pledged to put the province’s economic development agency — Opportunity New Brunswick — “on steroids.”

Green party Leader David Coon — who in 2014 became the first Green elected to the legislature — has also accused Higgs of attempting a power grab.

At the centre of the Green platform are commitments to eliminate the use of industrial herbicide on public land, raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour and lower the legal voting age to 16 years.

“We have two priorities,” Coon said during the campaign. “Keeping New Brunswickers safe and secure in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, and to chart a path to recovery … that puts the well-being of people and communities at the heart of government decision-making, while protecting the natural environment.”

As for the People’s Alliance, led by Kris Austin, the party had agreed to prop up the Higgs government for 18 months after the 2018 election. When that deal expired, Higgs asked the other parties to keep him in power until 2022 or until the pandemic had been declared over.

When the Liberals walked away from those talks last month, Higgs called for an election.

As was the case in the 2018 election, Austin’s party focused on language issues — a hot-button topic in the officially bilingual province. Austin has said the money spent on providing bilingual services, particularly in health care, could be better spent.

The NDP, which had no seats in the legislature when the election was called, is being led by interim leader Mackenzie Thomason. The 23-year-old is running in his third election.

Thomason said the NDP wants medicare to cover more services, including dental work, basic eye care and basic chiropractic care.

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