Some anti-shale gas activists in New Brunswick are urging their fellow environmentalists to temporarily join the Liberal Party in the hopes of influencing who becomes the party’s leader.
Members of Hampton Water First, a group that opposes the development of a shale gas industry in the province, have sent emails to other shale gas opponents, urging them to join the party by the Sept. 26 deadline, so they can vote for Michael Murphy.
Murphy, a former cabinet minister and MLA, is one of three candidates in the leadership race.
He has promised to impose a moratorium on shale gas exploration within 30 days of becoming premier and to call a public inquiry into the industry within the same period.
Murphy has said he would allow New Brunswickers to vote in a referendum on whether to let the industry develop.
“I realize and respect that each of us has particular persuasions politically,” Hampton Water First member David Forgie wrote in an Aug. 12 email, obtained by CBC News.
“However, I am encouraging you to consider our common opposition to SG [shale gas] to supersede political color.”
While the Green Party and the NDP also oppose fracking, Forgie writes, “it is time to support the individual who not only supports our goal to stop shale gas but who also has the highest probability of being elected.”
Several members of Hampton Water First (HWF) were wooed by Murphy at an Aug. 11 garden party at the home of Hampton lawyers David and Brenda Lutz, prominent Liberal supporters.
Carl Wolpin, a HWF member who attended the meeting, says the idea of becoming a temporary Liberal has provoked a range of reactions from environmentalists he knows.
Wolpin, who says he has supported various parties over the years, has told them voting for Murphy involves only “a one-day commitment.
“I’ve registered for the purpose of voting and I will go ahead and vote for Mike,” he said.
“No one’s suggesting that they become Liberal, or vote that way other than for the leadership,” said Wolpin.
“This is a one-day strategic vote for Mike for leader. Individuals can vote their conscience after that, whether it’s NDP, Green, or, God forbid, Conservative.”
Wolpin estimates there are 30 to 35 anti-shale gas organizations around the province, with several thousand members in total.
The Liberals have adopted a voting system that will give every member a vote, so recruiting a large number of anti-shale activists could be enough to swing the outcome. The votes will be weighted so that each riding is equal.
Single-issue voters signing up to influence party leadership candidates is nothing new in Canada, but it can lead to accusations that a party is being hijacked.
Murphy says that’s not happening in New Brunswick because party members will decide on Liberal policy.
But by adopting a one-member, one-vote system, he says, the Liberals are explicitly inviting all New Brunswickers to join the party.
Murphy says his goal, if he becomes leader, will be to persuade environmentalists like Wolpin to remain Liberals for the long term.
“Our desire is that when they join, whether they join for a particular cause or position or otherwise, they will stay as Liberal and we’ll win an election with them,” Murphy said.
But one of the people running for the leadership of the Green Party says Wolpin and other environmentalists will inevitably be disappointed.
“It’s the Liberal party that brought in the shale gas leases, and it’s only when they go out of power that, typically, a party will start responding to what people want," said Roy MacMullin.
Murphy’s Liberal leadership rival Nick Duivenvoorden says the anti-fracking activists may want to take a look at someone other than Murphy.
“Folks have to be careful before they line themselves up with one candidate when he has the same point of view as the other two candidates,” said Duivenvoorden.
The activists may be putting all of their eggs in one basket by assuming Murphy would be the most electable Liberal leader in 2014, he said. “Therein lies the risk."
The third Liberal leadership candidate, Brian Gallant, was not available for comment.
The new leader will be selected Oct. 27 in Moncton.
The Alward government has proposed 116 changes to the regulatory framework that oversees the oil and gas industry and in particular the controversial processs of hydraulic fracturing.
The new provincial regulations will set out strict rules on protecting the environment.
Natural gas companies will also be subject to higher fines if they break the rules.
Natural Resources Minister Bruce Northrup has said he'd like the rules to be in place for 2013.
Hydro-fracking is a process where exploration companies inject a mixture of water, sand and chemicals into the ground, creating cracks in shale rock formations. That process allows companies to extract natural gas from areas that would otherwise go untapped.
Opponents of the process say it could have a negative effect on local water supplies and many of them have held protests across the province.
Environmental groups, the Opposition Liberals, the New Brunswick College of Family Physicians and some municipal governments have called for a moratorium on shale gas activities in the province.
Four scientists at the University of New Brunswick also recently raised concerns about the amount of fresh water for hydro-fracking and the treatment needed for waste water.