Is the Liberal strategy of aligning Blaine Higgs with the Irvings a good idea or no?
If you have spent any amount of time in New Brunswick, you learn that many of us who live here have a love/hate relationship with the Irvings. Not surprising perhaps, when you consider the massive part they play in our economy. Depending on your point of view, Irvings either represent a massive conglomerate that pretty much gets its way with whatever government is in power and doesn’t pay its fair share of taxes, or is an economic driver that provides a ton of employment for New Brunswickers and often reinvests in the province. Or both.
It is against this backdrop, that the Brian Gallant Liberals made the strategic decision to make the fact Conservative leader Blaine Higgs is a former Irving Oil executive, an election issue. Mind you they did this back in the fall, but I mention it here because in his year-end interview with CBC, Gallant doubled down on it, saying it is relevant.
The implication is that because of that background, he doesn’t care about ordinary New Brunswickers, only about big business. Higgs counters that his experience of 30-plus years with Irving Oil taught him how to get things done. It is true no one ever accused Irvings of not being efficient.
So as a strategy, is Gallant making this an issue good or bad, smart or stupid? I don’t know the answer to that, maybe they have research that shows it will play well with voters, but it is risky, for a number of reasons.
For one thing, it raises the issue of to what extent not just the Tories, but the Liberals are pro-Irving, for those who see it as a negative. Just recently, in reference to a battle between woodlot owners and Irving, Gallant’s Energy and Resources Minister Rick Doucet stood in the legislature and defended the Irving side with a statement that sounded like it could have been drafted in the JDI corporate offices.
The Liberals seem to be trying to have their cake and eat it too with this strategy. And what a fine line that is. First they point a finger at Higgs with the message to voters not to trust him because he only cares about big business. But then when pushed on it, Minister of a bunch of departments Roger Melanson, when asked why it is a negative to have worked for Irving’s, refused to even repeat the name Irving. This is so there would be no sound bite or quote created that could come back and bite them. But the verbal gymnastics shows just how sensitive the government is on the issue, even though they purposely created it.
Higgs has invited Gallant to debate him on it, but it doesn’t look like that option has caught Gallant’s fancy, at least judging from the fact there has been no “you’re on” from the Premier. Pity as they would be some first rate entertainment.
As for Higgs response, he says he will not hesitate to defend his previous career, and so far he certainly hasn’t. But he needs to do more because there is danger if the Liberal allegation that his background has left him at most, an “Irving man”, or at least a “pro big business” man, resonates with voters.
The Liberals point to Higgs position on the minimum wage and his being against next month’s brand new Family Day holiday as proof he doesn’t care about the little guy. Aside from saying his Irving background positions him well to be an effective Premier, Higgs also needs to demonstrate that he wouldn’t be just a Premier who is an effective fiscal and operational manager, but also a Premier with a heart, with policies that speak directly to New Brunswickers who are struggling.
I don't know how accurate this is, but my gut feel is that many New Brunswickers see him as a good financial manager, but aren't sure where he is in regards to helping those on the lower rungs. It is a side of him we simply don't know much about. That's one of his challenges. This Liberal attack strategy simply underlines it.
It will be interesting to see how it plays out.
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