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UPDATE: Liberals and Tories in close race in New Brunswick, third parties surging

New Brunswick Progressive Conservative supporters watch early returns at leader Blaine Higgs' campaign headquarters in Quispamsis, N.B. on Monday, Sept. 24, 2018.
New Brunswick Progressive Conservative supporters watch early returns at leader Blaine Higgs' campaign headquarters in Quispamsis, N.B. on Monday, Sept. 24, 2018. - The Canadian Press

New Brunswick Premier Brian Gallant has won his seat of Shediac Bay-Dieppe for the Liberals; People's Alliance Leader Kris Austin has won his riding of Fredericton-Grand Lake, the party's first seat in the legislature; Progressive Conservative Leader Blaine Higgs has won his riding of Quispamsis; Green Leader David Coon has won his riding of Fredericton South


New Brunswick's Liberals and Progressive Conservatives were locked in a neck-and-neck race as the ballots were counted Monday night, at the conclusion of an election campaign that saw third parties surge in popularity amid a wave of voter discontent.

An hour after the polls closed, the Tories were leading or elected in 22 ridings, the Liberals were at 20, the People's Alliance had four and the Greens three. A total of 25 seats is needed for a majority.

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.

But it appeared New Brunswickers might be ready to turn their backs on the entrenched two-party system, with both the Greens and People's Alliance electing at least two MLAs.

As many polls had predicted, the leader of the People's Alliance, Kris Austin, won his seat in Fredericton-Grand Lake, a breakthrough for a party that was contesting its third election and had never won more than three per cent of the popular vote.

The party's “common sense” platform took aim at official bilingualism, saying the dual systems in health care and school busing are costing the province too much money.

As well, Green Leader David Coon took Fredericton South, as expected. Coon made history by winning the party's first-ever seat in 2014 and he said Monday he will be able to be more effective “with a caucus of Greens.”

“It looks like I'm going to be joined by other Green MLAs. I know for sure we will be able to applaud each other's speeches,” he joked.

During the 32-day campaign, the 36-year-old, telegenic leader of the Liberal party, Premier Brian Gallant, offered a big-spending platform, a strategy borrowed from Justin Trudeau's winning 2015 campaign.

By contrast, Progressive Conservative Leader Blaine Higgs - a 64-year-old former Irving Oil executive - campaigned on a tight-fisted platform that calls for “common-sense ideas that don't cost much.”

Higgs and Gallant were winners in their own ridings.

People's Alliance of New Brunswick Leader Kris Austin, centre, talks with campaign supporters Doug Mockler, left, and Reggie Barton at his satellite office in Minto, N.B., on Monday, Sept. 24, 2018.
People's Alliance of New Brunswick Leader Kris Austin, centre, talks with campaign supporters Doug Mockler, left, and Reggie Barton at his satellite office in Minto, N.B., on Monday, Sept. 24, 2018.

On the campaign trail, Gallant and Higgs commanded most of the attention, and the two men couldn't have been more different.

Gallant, a lawyer and the youngest premier in Canada, is a fresh-faced, fluently bilingual champion of gender equality, healthy eating and exercise. Recently married, the former tennis instructor was once crowned Mr. New Brunswick at a provincial competition.

Higgs is a dapper, grey-haired former finance minister and grandfather who has described citizens as customers, and has likened governing to running a business “and getting results.”

The unilingual Tory leader accused Gallant of using the public purse to buy votes.

Gallant countered by claiming Higgs would cut $500 million from the province's budget while eliminating up to 2,000 public service jobs.

Both the Liberals and the Tories appeared to lose support as the campaign progressed.

At the close of the campaign, the Liberals held 24 seats in the 49-seat legislature, the Progressive Conservatives had 21 and the Green party had one seat. There was one Independent and two vacancies.

Gallant was seeking a second consecutive majority government, but recent history wasn't on his side. No government has won two terms in office since 2003.

New Brunswick Liberal Leader Brian Gallant and his wife Karine Lavoie arrive at a polling station to vote in the provincial election in Dieppe, N.B., on Monday, Sept. 24, 2018.
New Brunswick Liberal Leader Brian Gallant and his wife Karine Lavoie arrive at a polling station to vote in the provincial election in Dieppe, N.B., on Monday, Sept. 24, 2018.

To be sure, the winning party will be faced with making some tough choices. The province has been saddled with 11 consecutive projected budget deficits. Though the most recent budget was balanced, Gallant said a Liberal government would table budget deficits for two more years before returning to balance three years from now.

Higgs said he would balance the books in two years.

Meanwhile, the net debt is expected to reach $14.4 billion by the end of this fiscal year, and the province remains at the bottom of the list with Newfoundland and Labrador when it comes to economic growth.

Higgs has repeatedly warned the province that its education test scores are nothing to be proud of, health-care wait times are the worst in the country and that New Brunswick has the lowest median income in Canada.

Historical voting patterns in New Brunswick have often seen francophone areas favour Liberal candidates while anglophone areas have leaned toward the Progressive Conservatives.

As a result, the Conservatives were considered a long shot in the 16 ridings where there is a francophone majority, mainly because of Higgs' previous ties with the now-defunct Confederation of Regions Party.

The party, which held official Opposition status between 1991 and 1995 before disappearing, was committed to repealing the provincial 1969 Official Languages Act, which cost the party support among francophones.

However, Liberal support is typically concentrated in French-speaking ridings, which has led to so-called vote inefficiency. That means the Liberals could win the popular vote but lose the election.

The NDP, led by Jennifer McKenzie for just over a year, failed to make much of an impression on voters. The party was in last place in the most recent opinion polls.

McKenzie ran in the same Saint John riding where Elizabeth Weir was the NDP member until 2005 - the last time the party had a seat in the legislature.

“I want to congratulate premier-designate,” McKenzie said in her speech Monday night, and then paused and looked around, “Gallant or Higgs?”

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