FREDERICTON — New Brunswick's Progressive Conservatives delivered an election campaign announcement Wednesday about education, but not before Premier Blaine Higgs made a point of repeatedly crowing about his leadership during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The campaign for the Sept. 14 election, now in its third week, has featured the usual assortment of promises and rhetoric, but it has become clear the Tories want to focus voters' attention on Higgs' response to the viral scourge.
Higgs, who was leading a 23-month-old minority government when he called a snap election last month, reminded the crowd in Oromocto, N.B., that New Brunswick continues to have a low infection rate — relative to most other provinces — and is now leading the country in terms of an economic recovery.
Since the pandemic was declared, the province has reported 192 confirmed cases, marking the lowest number of COVID-19 infections in Canada, next to P.E.I. and the territories. Neighbouring Nova Scotia has five times as many confirmed cases at 1,085. Two New Brunswickers have died as a result of COVID-19 and there were only four active cases in the province as of Wednesday.
As Education Minister Dominic Cardy was about to announce that a Tory government would increase the wages of early childhood educators and expand a food program to every school, he made a point of focusing on Higgs' leadership.
"We've seen that when a challenge was thrown in our direction that no one could have imagined happening ... we've seen a party and a government that's up to the job," Cardy said. "We've seen a party and a government able to take on a challenge ... and not just to do well, but to deliver a truly world-class result."
Higgs was introduced by the local Tory candidate, Mary Wilson, who cited comments made last week by the Bank of Montreal's chief economist, who said New Brunswick was projected to outperform most provinces in 2021.
Wilson said that projected achievement was "largely due to our premier's successful handling of the COVID-19 crisis."
In keeping with the theme, Higgs began his stump speech by noting the province's real estate market was on the upswing, as was construction, renovations and tourism.
Higgs then suggested the province was also ahead of the curve in Canada when it came to education.
"We are fortunate that we can safely reopen our schools when many other places around the world are still wondering what to do," he said, later noting that New Brunswick had closed its schools earlier than most other jurisdictions.
Earlier in the day, Liberal Leader Kevin Vickers promised his party would table a balanced budget no later than the third year of its mandate if elected to govern. He made the pledge while campaigning in St. Stephen, N.B., where he said the party would make fiscal responsibility a top priority.
"The recovery is far from over," he said, attempting to cast a shadow over Higgs' sunny assessments.
Vickers also took a swipe at Higgs, saying the Liberals would not adopt the Conservatives' approach of balancing the budget on the backs of the province's most vulnerable. The Liberal leader said Higgs intends to carry on with spending cuts that will hobble the province's economic recovery.
"Blaine Higgs wants you to think his plan has gone away. It hasn't."
In response, Higgs declined to say when his party would balance the books if it won the election. The Tory leader said the economic upheaval caused by the pandemic has put that kind of fiscal pledge out of reach.
He tried, however, to turn the tables on Vickers, asking the Liberal leader if he was willing to raise taxes to eliminate the province's $300-million deficit, something Higgs has promised not to do.
Later in the day, Vickers told supporters in Saint John, N.B., he had "no plans" to raise taxes. And he again tried to counter Higgs' leadership messaging with a dose of realism.
"Blaine Higgs wants people to think things are back to normal," he said. "We can't pretend everything is all right."
The Canadian Taxpayers Federation issued a statement saying it was glad to see Vickers "recognizes that one can't keep writing budgets with red ink forever."
Elsewhere on the campaign trail, Green party Leader David Coon issued a statement Wednesday announcing that a Green government would require the province's Crown-owned utility, NB Power, to use 100 per cent renewable energy sources energy by 2035.
Coon said that was a realistic goal, considering the province could invest in vastly improved energy efficiency, wind energy, solar farms, storage technologies and long-term purchases of hydroelectric power from Quebec and Labrador.
"Mr. Higgs and Mr. Vickers are clinging to their 20th-century ideas about energy as the climate crisis intensifies," Coon said. "But, the path is clear ... (and) I know how to get us there."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 2, 2020.
— By Michael MacDonald in Halifax
The Canadian Press