While reflecting on his win in Monday’s byelection, one of two new New Brunswick Tory MLAs Rejean Savoie admitted that campaigning to join the government can have its advantages.
“It’s always the best position for a riding, for an MLA, to be on the side of the government,” he said.
Savoie will be the second Francophone MLA in the government caucus, joining Local Government minister Daniel Allain. He took Miramichi Bay-Neguac with just under 45 per cent of the vote, filling the seat that has been vacant since Liberal MLA Lisa Harris resigned to run federally last year. It’s just the third time in the last 40 years that the Tories have won the riding and it’s predecessor Miramichi Bay.
In fact, one of those previous victories belongs to Savoie, who won it in 1999.
But whether the win was due to Premier Blaine Higgs’ personal brand or a chance at having a representative among the government caucus is not easy to answer.
“The overall takeaway is that it’s a win for Higgs, but it might not be a win for Higgs’ record,” said Jamie Gilles, a political scientist at St. Thomas University.
“It might be an opportunity for this part of the Miramichi to be included in government for the next couple of years. A seat at the table might be more important than electing an MLA.”
Shawn Wood placed second for the Liberals with 34 per cent of votes, Green candidate Chad Duplessie was third with 15 per cent, while People’s Alliance candidate Tom L’Huillier placed fourth and independent Ross Sutherland was fifth.
PC candidate Mike Dawson held Southwest Miramichi-Bay du Vin for the party, with Liberal candidate Hannah Fulton Johnston placing second.
For the Liberals the result is a disappointment, being unable to gain momentum from voter concerns over inflation and the cost of living.
A recent Narrative Research Poll had the Liberals and PCs tied in voter intention and showed over half of respondents were dissatisfied with premier Blaine Higgs’ government. Another recent poll from Angus Reid pegged Higgs’ approval rating at 33 per cent, the second-lowest of any premier in the country.
Wood said he often heard that the Miramichi area had been neglected while campaigning and admitted that an immediate seat at the governing table may have been attractive.
“He would obviously have more to offer for the first two years at least,” Wood said of Savoie.
“People feel we’ve been neglected a little bit up in this part of the province and people want to see some things happen, infrastructure-wise, obviously health-care-wise.”
For the governing party, the results show a desire for stability after years of pandemic and economic uncertainty.
“I think they want somebody that can go and work within government and try to bring prosperity back here in the Miramichi,” said PC party president Claude Williams.
Others contend the byelections were never really a fair fight. Donald Wright, a professor in the University of New Brunswick’s political science department, says that while the outcome may sting, the Liberals will have a hard time energizing voters while they lack a full-time leader.
“The Liberals will have to do a lot of soul-searching, but in their defence, they don’t have a leader and until they have a leader who is articulating the party’s vision they’re going to be kind of wandering in the wind,” he said.
“Without a leader it’s awfully hard to say ‘vote for us.’”
The party will select a new leader on Aug. 6 and whomever of the four candidates takes over can take some positives away from the pair of byelections.
While their share of the vote in Miramichi Bay-Neguac fell sharply, it grew in Southwest Miramichi-Bay du Vin. After finishing third with 22 per cent of the vote in 2020, behind the PCs and the People’s Alliance, Fulton Johnston came second with 36 per cent of the vote.
And that may be due, in part, to the collapse of the Alliance vote. In 2018 the Alliance lost that riding by fewer than 40 votes and pulled 28 per cent of the vote in 2020. Byelection candidate Larry Lynch received seven per cent.
“What’s interesting there is the People’s Alliance vote from the last election did not go entirely to the PCs,” Gilles said.
“It looks to me like some went back to the Liberals, so they could be competitive in both these ridings in the next election.”
But for now the Higgs government represents 30 of the province’s 49 ridings, a stable position from which to stickhandle the final two years of its current mandate.
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