The dominant issue in the New Brunswick election campaign, which wraps up in just over two weeks, could be summed up in one word: jobs.
And it’s not hard to see why.
While the province’s unemployment rate dipped to 8.7 per cent last month — slightly lower than its three Atlantic neighbours — that snapshot figure masks an annual trend that has seen steady increases since 2007.
The province’s economic growth rate was the worst in the country last year, which the Conference Board of Canada said was the result of austerity measures aimed at bringing its public debt levels under control.
Pollster Don Mills says voters’ chronic anxiety over jobs has been reflected in his opinion surveys since the recession hit six years ago.
“Nothing even comes close,” says Mills, head of Halifax-based Corporate Research Associates.
What has made this election campaign more interesting than most is that the two main parties have come up with vastly different plans on how to tackle the problem.
The governing Progressive Conservatives, under Premier David Alward, are telling voters the key to spurring the economy and creating jobs is supporting the province’s relatively new but contentious shale gas industry.
On the campaign trail, Alward recently posed beside a large banner that read: “Say Yes to Natural Gas/Get ‘Er Done.” And on the side of his campaign bus is the message: “Let’s bring our people home,” a reference to the many young New Brunswickers who have left the province in search of work in the West.
“New Brunswickers are facing a clear choice between becoming a ‘have province’ or watching our people continue to leave home for the very same industries we can say yes to here,” Alward says.
The Opposition Liberals, led by Brian Gallant, have called for a moratorium on the shale gas industry’s use of hydraulic fracturing, the high-pressure process used to extract oil and natural gas from shale formations.
Gallant says the province needs to “press pause while we get more information” about an industry that has sparked public protests, including a violent confrontation last October in Rexton, N.B., where police arrested 40 people as six police vehicles were gutted by flames.
In response to Gallant’s proposed moratorium, the Tories have crafted a radio ad that bluntly states, “It’s a moratorium on jobs and a moratorium on families being together.”
Two weeks ago, the Liberals delivered their own jobs plan, which includes a commitment to spend $900 million over six years on building and repairing roads, bridges and other infrastructure, which the party says would create more than 10,000 jobs.
Mills says the Progressive Conservatives appear to have wagered most of their political capital on those who support the shale gas industry, which Mills estimates is around 40 per cent of the electorate.
“They had to pick something where they could go after a group of voters and hope to do extremely well within that segment,” Mills said.
“It’s almost as if they’ve written off large segments of the population and targeted their whole message at the pro-development crowd.”
However, Mills says the Liberals are also engaging in a high-risk strategy by promising to spend $900 million at a time when the province’s economy is stalled.
“They would have been better off making vague promises about job creation without trying to attach a dollar amount to it,” Mills said. “It really opens them up to criticism of trying to … spend themselves into an election win.”
Don Desserud, a political science professor at the University of Prince Edward Island, said the job-creation promises from both parties have not inspired the electorate.
“There’s not a lot of confidence in the Liberals or the Conservatives in their ability to actually fix any of the problems that they’ve identified,” says Desserud.
With two weeks to go before the Sept. 22 vote, the Liberals have now adopted a cautious front-runner strategy while the Tories “have decided to go for broke” with their shale gas pledge, says Desserud.
“The (Tories) may have decided that the people who are against shale gas exploration and development would never vote for them in the first place.”
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