The province of New Brunswick has a majority Progressive Conservative government, formed on 14 September 2020. The premier of the province is Blaine Higgs and the lieutenant-governor is Brenda Murphy. New Brunswick’s first premier following Confederation was Andrew Wetmore, who served from 1867 to 1870. New Brunswick politics have been dominated by one of two parties, the Liberals and the Conservatives (eventually Progressive Conservatives), each of which have held power for lengthy periods of time. In 1987, for example, Frank McKenna’s Liberal party won every seat in the legislature. This had only happened once before in Canadian history, when the Prince Edward Island Liberals won every seat in 1935.
Provincial Government Structure
There are 49 seats in New Brunswick’s provincial government. Each seat is held by a Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA) elected by eligible voters in their electoral district. According to the Legislative Assembly Act, provincial elections are to be held on the third Monday of October, every four years. Sometimes, should the party in power see it as advantageous, an election may be called before this date. Elections may also occur before four years have passed in cases where the government no longer has the confidence of the Legislative Assembly (see Minority Government).
As with the other provinces, New Brunswick uses a first past the post electoral system, meaning the candidate with the most votes in each electoral district wins. The party with the most seats forms the government, and the leader of this party becomes premier. Technically, as the Queen’s representative, the lieutenant-governor holds the highest provincial office, though in reality this role is largely symbolic. (See also Premiers of New Brunswick: Table; Lieutenant-Governors of New Brunswick: Table.)
The premier typically appoints members of the Cabinet from among the MLAs also belonging to the party in power. Cabinet members are referred to as ministers and oversee specific portfolios. Typical portfolios include finance, health and education.
New Brunswick’s first elections were held in 1785. At the time, political parties didn’t exist, and voters instead chose candidates based on personal characteristics such as religion and social class. About 100 years later parties began to form; however, it wasn’t until 1931 that party affiliations became consistent. While the terms “liberal” and “conservative” were used earlier on in provincial politics, they meant little, as representatives frequently voted across ideological lines.
In the years following Confederation a two-party system became firmly entrenched in New Brunswick politics, with either the Liberals or the Conservatives (eventually Progressive Conservatives) holding power. Equally characteristic of provincial politics were the multiple terms enjoyed by the governing party, for example, five consecutive Conservative premiers governed from 1870 to 1883, followed by six consecutive Liberal premiers, from 1883 to 1908. Up until 1982, when the New Democratic Party won a single seat, the only third party to make a mark in provincial politics was the United Farmers of New Brunswick, which won nine seats in 1920.
As with other provinces, initially not everyone had the right to vote in provincial elections. Women received this right in 1919, and Indigenous people in 1963. (See also Women’s Suffrage in Canada; Indigenous Suffrage.) Similarly, Catholics were denied the vote until 1810, after which time they could vote only if they pledged allegiance to England’s Protestant King. This law effectively disenfranchised the province’s French Canadian and Acadian populations, most of whom were Catholic.
Indeed, ethnicity and regional disparity have historically been recurring themes in New Brunswick politics. In 1972, a separatist political party, the Parti-Acadien, was formed in an effort to better represent the province’s French-speaking communities. Politicians have occasionally exploited tensions between the French and English, but the winning party has traditionally been the one able to win a substantial share of support from both.
Robichaud to Hatfield: 1960s–1980s
In 1960, Liberal Louis J. Robichaud became the province’s first elected Acadian premier (Peter J. Veniot took over in 1923 following a resignation, but was not elected) and the first francophone. Robichaud introduced sweeping changes to economic and linguistic policies. Acadians gained most from these changes as income was redistributed from urban centres to a poverty-stricken north, and language services were developed to serve both the English and French as recommended by the federal Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism.
Despite the opposition of prominent corporations and conservatives appalled at the pace of change, Robichaud remained in power for the decade. His successor, Conservative and Protestant Richard Hatfield (who remained premier for 17 years, 1970–87), did not reverse the trend. Hatfield’s government implemented changes in keeping with those of Robichaud and his party made increasing inroads in Acadian constituencies, defusing the Parti-Acadien’s bid for a separate Acadian province.
McKenna to Alward: 1990s–2000s
In 1984, the RCMP found marijuana in then premier Richard Hatfield’s luggage. While he ultimately wasn’t charged with possession, the incident affected Hatfield’s public image. In 1987, New Brunswick’s Liberal party, under the leadership of Frank McKenna, swept the polls, winning every riding in the province. This had only happened once before in Canadian history, when the Prince Edward Island Liberals won every seat in 1935. McKenna attacked the province’s deficit and streamlined the government in an effort to bring provincial spending under control. Many of McKenna’s budgetary initiatives have since become blueprints for other provinces wrestling with deficits. His success in this area resulted in another large majority victory in the 1991 general election. The fledgling anti-French Confederation of Regions Party (CoR) showed surprising strength in this election, winning eight seats, largely as a result of the backlash against the failed Meech Lake Accord (see Meech Lake Accord: Document) and Charlottetown Accord (see Charlottetown Accord: Document).
Following the province’s trend of brief third-party success, the CoR won no seats in their second election, and McKenna won his third consecutive majority in 1995. In 1999, Bernard Lord led the PCs to the biggest PC victory in the province’s history. In 2003, however, new Liberal leader Shawn Graham took advantage of public outrage against auto insurance premiums; Graham constantly attacked Lord and the PCs on this issue, even suggesting a system of public auto insurance to control prices. Lord was reduced to the smallest possible majority government, winning 28 seats, while the Liberals won 26 and the NDP one.
Graham defeated Lord in the 2006 election, which was controversially called early by Lord in order to avoid entering a new legislative session with a minority following the resignation of PC MLA Peter Mesheau. This backfired, and the Liberals formed a majority government, with 29 seats to the 26 won by the PCs. Despite this, disillusionment with Graham’s government grew, making him the first one-term premier in New Brunswick since Confederation. Under the leadership of David Alward, the Tories won a landslide victory in 2010 with 42 of the 55 seats compared to the Liberals’ 13. In 2013, the province’s riding boundaries were redrawn, reducing the number of seats in the legislature from 55 to 49.
Gallant to Higgs: 2014–Present
During the 2014 election, the province swung left again, giving Liberal leader Brian Gallant a narrow majority government with 27 seats. David Alward’s PCs won 21 seats and, for the first time in New Brunswick’s history, the Green Party garnered a seat when provincial party leader David Coon defeated the PC energy minister in the Fredericton-South riding.
In addition to this defeat, voters seemed to reject the PCs’ energy platform more generally. Alward had campaigned on the need to develop the province’s natural resources, including fracking, while Gallant pushed infrastructure spending. Technical difficulties with the vote-counting machines caused a delay in results and led the PCs to demand a recount. Elections New Brunswick, however, maintained the results were sound.
The 2018 election resulted in a near tie between the Liberals and PCs. The PCs, under the leadership of Blaine Higgs, won 22 seats — just one more than Gallant’s Liberals. The Green Party, still led by Coon, won three seats, as did the People’s Alliance led by Kris Austin.
There is a rarely-used parliamentary tradition that says that the incumbent premier has the first right to try and form government, regardless of how many seats their party won. Gallant — who’s party won 37.8 per cent of the popular vote compared to the PC’s 31.9 per cent — chose to make use of this tradition in an effort to stay in power.
On 2 November, Gallant delivered a throne speech in order to test the legislature’s confidence in his government. Having lost one voting member of their party to fill the role of speaker of the legislature, the Liberals now needed the support of four non-Liberal MLAs. While the three Green Party members voted in favour of the speech, the Liberals were unable to sway members of the People’s Alliance, a fiscally-conservative party in opposition to many of the province’s bilingual policies. Without the confidence of the legislature, Gallant stepped down as premier, paving the way for Higgs.
In early August 2020, five months into the COVID-19 pandemic, Higgs sent a letter to all three opposition parties. In the letter, he asked the parties to support his government either until the province’s fixed election date in October 2022, or until the pandemic was over. As the leader of a minority government, Higgs’ request meant that opposition parties needed to promise not to defeat his government on confidence votes. At the time of the letter, Higgs’s approval ratings were at a record high. His justification for the request was to provide the province with stability during the pandemic.
When the Liberal Party pulled out of negotiations, Higgs called an election. On 14 September 2020, New Brunswick held the first general election in Canada since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Voters elected a majority PC government. The PCs received 27 seats, the Liberals 17, the Greens three and the People’s Alliance two.