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Liberals poised to win in New Brunswick

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It's not often politicians take bold, clear stands on divisive issues, and rarer still in the midst of an election campaign. New Brunswick's political leaders are making an exception.

Premier David Alward is seeking a second term on Sept. 22 on a promise to forge ahead with shale gas exploration, barely a year after protests against hydraulic fracking escalated into violence and arrests.

"Say Yes to shale gas, jobs and prosperity," the ruling Progressive Conservatives are urging in television ads that decry the negativism of those who would stall the province's march to economic salvation. "Say Yes to Premier David Alward."

Alward's main opponent, rookie Liberal Leader Brian Gallant, has waded into the contentious issue of abortion. When the private Morgentaler clinic in Fredericton closed this summer, he pledged to review a 25-year-old provincial law that restricts access to abortions in the public health system.

Gallant says he would to "move swiftly" if elected to "ensure we are respecting a woman's right to choose." It's a huge political risk in a province the National Post recently designated "social conservatism's last stronghold."

Gallant, though, is in a position to take risks. A major poll this week gave him a commanding lead, with almost half of decided and leaning respondents backing the Liberals. PC support was pegged at 29 per cent and the only other parties that could pick up a seat, the New Democrats and Greens, were at 17 and four per cent, respectively.

More than half of those polled were dissatisfied with Alward's government. The online site Election Almanac, which crunches polling numbers, predicts Gallant could sweep more than 40 of the province's 49 seats.

Alward, 54, was elected in 2010 on a promise to balance the budget in his first term, but his finance minister projects that won't happen until 2018. In the meantime, his government has posted $500-million deficits and pushed the net debt above $12 billion, the second-highest per capita in the country.

While the Tories have trimmed expenditures, cost-cutting has not been enough to pull the balance sheet into the black. That's why Alward is determined to forge ahead with shale gas development, in hopes of injecting life into an economy saddled with 10 per cent unemployment.

He also backs the proposed Energy East pipeline to bring Alberta oil to Saint John for refining and export, and recently signed a controversial deal to give forestry giant J.D. Irving Ltd. access to more timber on Crown land, in exchange for new investment in sawmills and badly needed jobs.

Gallant, for his part, is saying "no" to shale gas, at least for now. He wants a moratorium on exploration and development pending further study of fracking's effect on groundwater and the environment.

He promises to slash spending by $250 million under a plan endorsed by former prime minister Paul Martin, who knows a thing or two about budget-cutting from his days as federal finance minister. But the Liberals want to hire more doctors and invest almost $1 billion to build and repair highways and bridges, delaying their balanced-budget projection to 2020 and piling $1.5 billion onto the debt in the meantime.

The Tories question Gallant's youth and inexperience -- a lawyer, he was elected to the legislature a year ago and is just 32. But New Brunswickers have a habit of electing young premiers. Louis Robichaud became premier in 1960 at 34; Bernard Lord was 33 when his PCs won the 1999 election and he lost in 2006 to the Liberals and their 38-year-old leader, Shawn Graham.

If Gallant's polling numbers hold, New Brunswick would be the fifth province since May 2013 to elect or return a Liberal government, following the lead of voters in Nova Scotia, Ontario, Quebec and British Columbia.

For New Brunswick's Liberals, revenge would be sweet. When Alward defeated Shawn Graham in 2010, it was the first time in almost 150 years that the ruling party was denied a second term. That favour, it seems, is about to be returned.

Dean Jobb teaches journalism at the University of King's College in Halifax.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 4, 2014 A11

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