HALIFAX -- It's an image that could be a metaphor for the fate of New Brunswick Premier David Alward and his Progressive Conservative government -- the burned-out shells of police vehicles, the aftermath of a confrontation with anti-fracking protesters that turned violent.
Like the RCMP cruisers, Alward's political fortunes have been going up in smoke. And he's running out of time -- and options -- as he tries to turn things around before an election that's less than a year away.
The clash over shale gas exploration near Elsipogtog First Nation, north of Moncton, ended with the arrests of 40 people and the seizure of weapons and explosives, leaving little doubt the show of force by police was justified.
But at the root of the standoff is a wider debate over how to strike a balance between protecting the environment and developing natural resources. The protesters fear chemicals used to extract shale gas -- if any is found -- could contaminate drinking water on the reserve. The Alward government claims the province needs the economic boost and jobs a new natural gas industry would create.
No argument there. The latest Statistics Canada figures on New Brunswick's sputtering economy show new-home construction is tanking and manufacturing sales have dipped 10 per cent from last year.
The unemployment rate is one of the highest in the country at just under 11 per cent. In northern areas of the province, it tops 14 per cent, more than double the national average. The modest population growth of recent years has begun to reverse as people leave in search of jobs.
These dire economic straits have produced a perfect storm of fiscal challenges. With revenues headed south, the Alward government has frozen the health-care budget and hiked personal and corporate taxes to make up the shortfall. Last month, Finance Minister Blaine Higgs admitted the deficit for this fiscal year has climbed to a half-billion dollars, inflating an accumulated debt that stands at more than $11 billion.
It has all the makings of a political disaster for a PC government that swept to power in 2010 on pledges to restore "order and stability" to the province's finances without raising taxes or cutting services. Critics who warned those promises were unrealistic -- and there were many -- have been proven right.
New Brunswick could follow the lead of other provinces and raise its sales tax to cut the deficit. But under provincial law, Alward must hold a referendum on the issue. After the drubbing voters inflicted a few weeks ago on the Nova Scotia NDP government, which broke its promise not to raise the sales tax, he has a good idea what the answer would be.
Alward faces his own day of reckoning, in an election set for next September. He has a solid majority in the legislature -- 41 of 55 seats -- but the latest opinion poll has the Liberals flying high, with the support of almost half of decided voters. The PCs were the choice of 23 per cent of respondents, relegating them to a statistical tie with the perennial last-place party, the New Democrats.
The Liberals hold only 13 seats but have been re-energized under new leader Brian Gallant, a lawyer barely in his 30s. He's a political rookie who has sat in the legislature for only six months, but age counts little in a province with a history of electing young premiers, from Richard Hatfield to Frank McKenna to Alward's predecessor, Shawn Graham, who was elected at 38.
Gallant has yet to explain how he would fix the province's formidable financial problems if he becomes premier, other than promising to offer voters "creative and affordable solutions" when the time comes. Shale gas won't be part of the mix -- the Liberals want a moratorium on fracking.
Gallant backs Alward's most promising initiative -- the proposed Energy East pipeline, which would bring Alberta crude to Irving Oil's refinery and export terminal in Saint John.
Even if the $12-billion project is approved, though, it could be years before the construction phase brings a short-term boom to New Brunswick. That's looking like too little, and far too late, to save Alward.
When New Brunswickers ousted the Liberals and elected the PCs in 2010, it was the first time since Confederation the party in power was denied a second mandate. As the Alward government struggles and the Liberals rebound, history may soon repeat itself.
Dean Jobb, the Winnipeg Free Press East Coast correspondent, teaches journalism at the University of King's College in Halifax.