Progressive Conservative Leader Blaine Higgs's election pitch to return majority government rule to New Brunswick after two years of a minority legislature has directly put the question to voters of whether their growing embrace of third parties over the last decade has been a whim or a fundamental shift in their politics.
UNB political scientist J.P. Lewis believes the answer voters deliver on that question on Sept. 14 will be a turning point for New Brunswick one way or another.
"I would say one of the slightly overlooked stories right now, because obviously there's a lot of other things going on, is just a test of 2018," said Lewis about voters' view of the minority government they delivered two years ago.
"The collapse of the [two-party] system, will that hold up?"
The combined popular vote for New Brunswick's two main political parties has been in steady decline for three general elections in a row. In 2018, it sank below 70 per cent for only the second time in the last century.
Since Progressive Conservatives under Bernard Lord and Liberals under Shawn Graham split 94 per cent of the vote in the 2006 New Brunswick general election — each getting 47 per cent — there has been a steady shift in voter support away from both.
The Green and People's Alliance parties fought their first provincial election in 2010 and, along with the NDP, attracted 59,992 votes that year.
In 2014, the trio upped that total to 80,795. In 2018, they increased it again to 112,085, almost all of it at the expense of Liberals and Progressive Conservatives.
The 2018 vote totals were strong enough to elect three Green and three People's Alliance MLAs, and force the province into a minority government.
Higgs is betting voters prefer the "stability" of majority government and called a snap summer election to seek that mandate.
"It's completely my decision," said Higgs in announcing the election Aug. 17. "I'm the one who asked permission to dissolve the legislature and I'm the one who had to weigh all the facts leading up to this. I'm the one who made the final call."
People's Alliance leader Kris Austin thinks Higgs has misjudged the public mood and has underestimated the strength of the decade-long shift in support to third parties.
"I think most people are very pleased with the makeup of the legislature in terms of it being a minority government," said Austin in an interview.
"Mr. Higgs is going to go out and he's going to say, you need stability with a majority government, and we're going to say you need accountability with a minority government. We have proven over the last two years that we can provide both.
"I'm hard pressed to believe that New Brunswick as a whole will return a majority to either Mr. Higgs or [Liberal Party Leader] Mr. Vickers."
The Progressive Conservative party alone has lost more than 50,000 voters since the 2006 election, most of those to third parties.
Jamie Gillies, who teaches political science at St. Thomas University. thinks the key to whether Higgs can achieve a majority government rests with getting some of those back, especially ones that fled to the People's Alliance.
"If there is a PC vote surge, it will likely be at the expense of the [People's Alliance]," Gillies said in an email.
"Vote splits between the PCs and the PA might prove to be a determining factor as to whether Higgs forms a robust majority government."
But dissatisfaction with majority governments is one of the factors that fuelled the rise of third parties in New Brunswick in the first place.
The last three majorities elected to run the province — two Liberal and one Progressive Conservative — were not overly popular. Each was defeated after a single term in office.
Lewis said because this time voters are being asked directly if they prefer majority or minority government, the strength or weakness of third-party voting will reveal much about the true strength of the province's traditional two-party system.
"I look at more the aggregate of the Tory and Liberal vote," said Lewis.
"If it stays under 80 per cent, I think that reflects we're moving in a certain direction in a province that comparatively to other provinces, has had an incredibly stable party system."