Opinion: Chad Bowie’s Take: FIVE (ATLANTIC) POLITICAL STORIES TO WATCH IN 2019

By Chad Bowie

The year ahead promises to be an exciting one for political junkies in Atlantic Canada.

For starters, Canadians will head to the polls to elect a new crop of MPs in October. Will Justin Trudeau be maintaining his iron grip on our region’s 32 seats in Parliament, or will a growing sense of Eastern alienation over issues like the Energy East pipeline cause him to suffer major losses?

Only time well tell.

As exciting as federal politics can be, it’s important to remember that in the political world, the upcoming national campaign isn’t the only interesting story coming out of Atlantic Canada – far from it.

That’s why this week I’ve compiled five stories (besides the upcoming federal campaign) I’ll be watching unfold in the year ahead. Buckle up because 2019 is going to be a very, very interesting year in Atlantic politics.

The role of the disruptors

Across the Western world, political disruptors have been making waves. From Donald Trump’s shock win, to Brexit, to the election of populist governments in Ontario and Quebec, one thing is clear – voters want something different.

While we don’t often think of disruptive politics being a force in Atlantic Canada, the reality is it’s taken hold in a major way.

On Prince Edward Island (PEI), the Green Party has a real shot at winning the upcoming provincial election. The party is tied with the governing Liberals in the polls and sits ahead of the opposition Tories. Whether the Green Party of PEI manages to form Canada’s first Green government or not, their meteoric rise in the polls proves voters in our region are just as frustrated with the mainstream “old” parties as the electorate anywhere else!

In New Brunswick, the right-leaning, populist People’s Alliance holds the balance of power in the province’s new minority government – a major feat for a third party.

Since the election, the party appears to have settled comfortably into a supporting role, content to prop up Premier Blaine Higgs’ minority Progressive Conservative government for the time being.

This is a wise choice for the Party as it gives them time to raise money, attract winning candidates, build electoral district associations and leverage their newfound profile to prepare for another trip to the polls. At the same time, the Party runs the risk of becoming too associated with Higgs’ government, thereby eliminating any possible reason to vote for them.

So far, it appears People’s Alliance leader Chris Austin has done a good enough job maintaining that all-important balance, but what will 2019 bring? If Austin is wise, he’ll be looking for a way the People’s Alliance can play a bigger role in New Brunswick’s tenuous minority legislature in 2019.

Elections on PEI and Newfoundland and Labrador

This year, voters on both PEI and Newfoundland and Labrador will have the chance to cast judgment on Premiers Wade McLaughlin and Dwight Ball, respectively.

Will what started in New Brunswick in late 2018 pave the way for a Tory renaissance or Green revolution in Atlantic Canada, or will the bulk of Fortress Liberal hold? The answer to that question, most likely, depends on the campaigns to come!

On PEI, it appears McLaughlin’s chief opposition comes not from the Tories, but in the form of Green Party leader Peter Bevan-Baker, a dentist and activist.

Bevan-Baker is heading into 2019 with wind in his sails, given his party is tied with the Liberals in the opinion polls and voters seem hungry for change.

Bevan-Baker’s plans, however, could be upended when the Progressive Conservatives select their new leader in February. Perhaps the new Progressive Conservative leader will enjoy a honeymoon period with the voters at exactly the right time. (More on that later.) The NDP is not a factor in PEI – as is increasingly the case in much of the country.

In Newfoundland and Labrador, Progressive Conservative leader Ches Crosbie has the right pedigree. He’s the son of famous Tory politico and Mulroney minister John Crosbie and, having achieved success as a lawyer, has entered the political arena for the right reasons.

Crosbie’s fiscally conservative policies are a breath of fresh air in a province where government overspending and overreliance on commodity prices have resulted in serious economic challenges.

Despite being initially well liked, Premier Dwight Ball has seen his popularity slide – at exactly the wrong time. Granted, he still has a leg up on Crosbie in opinion polls, but the Tory leader has the right policies and the right last name to achieve pollical success on “the rock.”

At the end of the day, campaigns still matter – a lot. Whether two more Atlantic provinces turn blue (or Green) in 2019 will depend greatly on the quality of the campaigns each of the parties runs.

All campaign junkies can look forward to watching what tactics are employed as the year unfolds.

Tim Houston’s province-wide debut

After an impressive victory in the Nova Scotia Progressive Conservative leadership race, Tim Houston has largely remained under the radar while rearranging Tory backrooms to his liking – as is his prerogative. Expect that to change in 2019, however.

The Nova Scotia Tories will know full well that while Houston is a very popular figure within party circles, in 2019 they must introduce him to the electorate-at-large. How that’s done will be very interesting to watch. They’ll also know that with at least one by-election looming, they should do it sooner rather then later.

Perhaps the Tories will attach Houston to a set of unconventional policy ideas. Or, strategists may be thinking their best bet is to position Houston as an effective critic of the McNeil Liberals and rely on the force of his affable personality to carry the day.

It’s also worth noting that Tory coffers should be relatively flush, thanks to a significant increase in per-vote public funding and a debt-free election campaign in 2017. Maybe an ad blitz is on the way. The best strategy is probably a mix of all three – policy ideas, effective criticism and paid media.

Houston will be put to the test electorally sometime in 2019, as Premier Stephen McNeil must call a by-election to replace Sackville-Cobequid MLA Dave Wilson.

Conventional wisdom is that it should be a tough seat for the Tories to win, given it’s been held by the NDP for a very long time. Interestingly, though, the Tories have raised the stakes by recruiting Halifax Councillor Steve Craig to seek their nomination.

Houston doesn’t need to win the by-election, but given the Tories have a star candidate in the offing, he will be expected to post a strong result. If the Tories do pull out a win, Houston will undeniably have the right to claim momentum is on his side.

Leadership races on PEI and New Brunswick

Two major parties in the Maritimes are on the hunt for new leaders. After desperately trying to cling to power in the wake of a lost election, former New Brunswick Premier Brian Gallant is finally moving on.

It didn’t take long for potential replacements to rear their heads.

Former House of Commons sergeant-at-arms Kevin Vickers is considering entering the leadership race. Vickers was hailed as a hero after he helped stop an attack on Parliament Hill in 2014.

Former Prime Minister Stephen Harper subsequently appointed him Canada’s ambassador to Ireland.

Vickers would bring star power to the race and has certainly earned the public’s affection. But is he ready for the cut-and-thrust of partisan politics?

New Brunswick Liberals would be wise to avoid getting caught up in Vickers’ celebrity status and hold his feet to the fire to ensure he has the chops to be Premier. Someone of Vickers’ stature and reputation should welcome such a grilling.

Vickers is likely to face stiff competition should he enter the race. The New Brunswick Liberals won the popular vote in last year’s provincial election and remain a very strong official opposition. If someone misses the bus on the government benches, New Brunswickers could well head back to the polls. That makes the New Brunswick Liberal leadership a prize worth winning.

On PEI, the Progressive Conservatives are in the midst of a competitive leadership race that has seen five credible candidates step forward.

The challenge for the party, regardless of which candidate wins, will be to unite and rally around their premier-in-waiting. Tories on the Island have been senselessly divided for nearly a decade and have developed a nasty habit of cannibalizing their party leaders. This must end if the party is to again be seen as a credible choice to govern.

The conservative Premiership of Blaine Higgs

Surprising many, Blaine Higgs has emerged as not only New Brunswick’s premier but possibly the leader of the conservative (note my use of a lowercase “c”) movement in Atlantic Canada.

First, the Tory premier proved that elections can, in fact, be won in Atlantic Canada by running clearly to the right – and by supporting resource development projects, like fracking.

It’s his work since the campaign, however, that has caught the attention of movement conservatives nation-wide. Putting his money where his mouth is in a literal sense, Higgs suggested provinces who fail to develop their own natural resources (pay attention, Nova Scotia) should receive less in federal equalization payments.

Equalization is a sacred cow in Atlantic Canada, and Higgs’ stance proves he has guts.
Not one to sit still, Higgs again rocked the national boat by taking on the province of Quebec and Justin Trudeau in a fight to revive the scuttled Energy East pipeline project. Atlantic Canada – and Ottawa – would be wrong to give up on Energy East. Now, the project has a champion at the national table in the form of Premier Higgs.

Hopefully he’ll continue the fight vigorously in 2019.

Together, all of this represents only a small sampling of what lies ahead for political junkies in Atlantic Canada in 2019. With so much at stake, so much unpredictability, and so many interesting personalities to follow, politics in our region is about to become as interesting as it has ever been.

Aren’t we junkies blessed?

Chad Bowie is a long-time Nova Scotia conservative political strategist. He is also a direct marketing and political consultant. He owns Chad Bowie Consulting.