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Spending or stability: New Brunswick voters offered contrast in policy approaches


FREDERICTON — The contrast in policy approaches between Progressive Conservatives and Liberals on the New Brunswick campaign trail was on full display Thursday.

During a campaign stop on a farm in Drummond, near the border with Maine, Liberal leader Kevin Vickers promised to inject an extra $5 million into the budget of the Department of Agriculture, Aquaculture and Fisheries, if he becomes premier in next month's election.

Tory Leader Blaine Higgs, on a trip to Bouctouche, on the province's east coast, made his agriculture-related announcement without committing any new money. Instead, Higgs told reporters he's sticking with the food security plan his government introduced in March.

Since the launch of the election campaign Monday, the Tories are pledging to stay the course while the Liberals are promising something new.

Most of Higgs' announcements have been to continue the policies his government started in the first two years of its mandate. 

Higgs' rein on the purse strings sparked a rebuke Thursday from Vickers.

"It is his DNA," Vickers said of his opponent. "Austerity, austerity, cuts and cuts and the farmers of New Brunswick have been failed by this man and it's time you have a premier that cares about the farmers of this province."

Higgs said he's not going to develop policy on the campaign trail. As of Thursday morning, the Progressive Conservative website was still carrying the party's 2018 election platform — despite the fact the world has changed dramatically since the COVID-19 pandemic.

Higgs told reporters the platform would be updated at some point during the campaign, adding the party continues to follow through on the direction set out in 2018.

But by Thursday evening, the 2018 platform was no longer available on the Tory website. A party spokesperson was not immediately available for comment.

On Wednesday, Higgs said his goal is to provide stability.

"Maybe I'm boring but I'm no surprise. I'm consistent. You can trust me. I'm doing what I believe is right for our province."

Donald Wright, a political scientist at the University of New Brunswick, said he believes voters are looking for a mix of the two styles.

"On one hand, the electorate does want stability during the pandemic," he said. "They want a steady hand at the tiller — but we also want vision. The people of New Brunswick want ideas."

Wright said the fact the Tories' website was still promoting the 2018 platform, "looks like amateur hour."

He said Vickers has an uphill battle to present himself to New Brunswickers. Vickers, Wright explained, has been basically sidelined over the last five months as the Liberal leader collaborated with the other parties on the government's response to COVID-19.

"He's got to come out and show what's different, what's unique. Are the Liberals capable of big thinking during what is an historical crisis?" Wright said.

Back on the farm, Vickers said Thursday investing in cost-share programs will allow local producers to expand their businesses and that growing the agriculture sector will benefit New Brunswickers long after the end of the COVID-19 pandemic.

"You can remove any service that exists across our country but you cannot eliminate farming … I want to tell the farmers of new Brunswick, as premier of this province you will be in my mind every single day," he said. 

Vickers highlighted his family roots in the farming industry, saying he understands farmers' work ethic, values and struggles.

"We have to get our youth involved," he said. "We have to get our youth to stay in the family farm. We have to use our education system and ensure young students realize the value of farming and the career opportunities."

In Bouctouche, Higgs said the pandemic provided important lessons about supply chains and our reliance on foreign markets.

"While we are self-sufficient when it comes to poultry and dairy," Higgs said, "and we are world leaders in potatoes, seafood and blueberries, we saw an over-reliance on imports of other types of fresh fruits and vegetables, as well as some meats."

He said his government would promote year-round farming, greater promotion of local food, and increase its efforts to attract new farmers.

Green leader David Coon also touched on agriculture Thursday as he stood by the exposed bottom of the St. John River in Hartland, N.B. He said drought conditions have had a major impact on rural New Brunswick this summer.

"When I listen to Mr. Higgs and Mr. Vickers, they don't get rural communities," Coon said. "They don't seem to understand farmers. They just don't get that rural people are bearing the brunt of the consequences of the climate crisis."

"Water levels are at their lowest in over 50 years," Coon continued. "That's not just some statistical oddity. It's the modern, climate change reality that rural New Brunswickers are facing."

Coon said a Green government would create a Department of Rural Affairs.

The provincial election is set for Sept. 14.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 20, 2020.

Kevin Bissett, The Canadian Press

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