A general dissatisfaction with Stephen Harper and anger over his policies, coupled with several high-profile Tories declining to seek re-election, adds up to trouble for the Conservatives in Atlantic Canada, according Peter McKenna, Chair of the Political Science Department at University of Prince Edward Island.
Atlantic Canada is set to go Liberal red with the exception of some seats in New Brunswick, McKenna said.
“I think there’s a real appetite for change in Atlantic Canada and that spells bad news for the Harper Conservatives – not that they had much of a chance here anyway,” McKenna said.
The political scientist asserts that Atlantic Canadians are fed up with the prime minister’s style of governance, “sort of a party of one,” he said, referencing Michael Harris' recent bestselling book of the same name. McKenna believes that even among Conservative followers, “there’s a real sense of disappointment with the sort of anti-democratic nature of the Harper government.”
Exacerbating the fatigue with the Harper team is a weakening economy in a region with some of the lowest employment rates in the country. In Atlantic Canada unemployment varies from 9.9 per cent in New Brunswick to 12.6 per cent in Newfoundland.
In contrast, the overall Canadian unemployment rate stood at 7 per cent in August. Given that Harper is campaigning on the economy and jobs, voters in Atlantic Canada are frustrated by the gap between reality and political rhetoric.
At the same time, changes to the Employment Insurance Act did nothing to enhance Harper’s popularity in the region. The reforms, which made it more difficult for individuals to draw employment insurance, failed to take into account the seasonal nature of employment in Atlantic Canada, where many make their living as fishers, for example.
“I think that has hurt the Conservatives,” McKenna said. That anger may cost Prince Edward Island MP, Gail Shea, her seat. Trudeau has said he’d like to see the small island turn completely red, and has already traveled to the region to lend his support to Liberal candidate Robert Morrissey. Shea is the sole Conservative member on P.E.I.
Prominent Tories stepping down in Nova Scotia are hurting Conservative fortunes there
In Nova Scotia, three of the four Conservative incumbents have decided not to seek re-election, throwing Tory fortunes in that province into disarray. Peter MacKay, Gerald Keddy and Greg Kerr are all stepping down.
The Central Nova riding has been a MacKay bastion since 1971 when Peter’s father, Elmer, first took the seat. He retained it until 1993, only giving it up between 1983-84 when Brian Mulroney used the seat in a by-election. Peter then held the riding from 1997 on.
Keddy has held South Shore – St. Margaret’s since 1997, while Kerr has retained West Nova since 2006.
Further weakening Tory support in the region is Bill Casey, a former Conservative MP who was expelled from the party after he voted against the 2007 budget. He is running for the Liberals this election against Tory Scott Armstrong.
Refusing to back down to Harper over the budget only elevated Casey’s popularity; in 2008 he took the riding as an independent with 70 per cent of the vote. In 2009, he resigned to work for the Nova Scotia government.
Harper clearly doesn’t want Armstrong to lose the Cumberland-Colchester seat to Casey and has already swung through the area twice.
If the patterns of visits mean anything – and Kelly Blidook, an associate professor of political science at Memorial University in St. John’s maintains they do – Harper has given up on Newfoundland and Labrador.
Blidook said the federal leaders are targeting places where their visits will pay off. “Stephen Harper will probably visit Newfoundland once and it will probably be a token gesture because there’s really no ridings his party can win and you don’t invest in bad stock,” Blidook said.
“You don’t spend your time and effort going places where there’s zero pay-off.”
How the Conservatives threw away their chance for seat in Newfoundland
The scuttlebutt on The Rock is how the Conservatives squandered their only chance to gain a seat. Ches Crosbie put forward his name as a candidate and for reasons unknown, the Conservatives rejected him.
Crosbie is a well-known lawyer as well as the son of former federal Newfoundland cabinet minister, John Crosbie, who was also previously lieutenant-governor of the province.
In that same riding, formal Liberal Scott Andrews will run as an independent. Andrews had to resign from the riding of Avalon last March after allegations of sexual misconduct surfaced. CBC reported that Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau permanently ousted Andrews from the Liberal caucus after receiving the results of an independent investigation he had commissioned from human rights specialist and Toronto lawyer, Cynthia Peterson.
Blidook said it’s possible that the riding may actually elect Andrews again because of the botched Crosbie nomination. According to Blidook, rejecting Crosbie meant the Tories threw away their one real chance to gain a seat in the province.
“Their heads are not above water in this province otherwise. There’s no other riding they can possibly win. Because of that ordeal, they threw away that riding, so they really won’t have much of a presence in Newfoundland and Labrador is my guess,” Blidook said.
Peter Penashue, the first Innu cabinet minister who won the Tories’ only seat in Newfoundland in 2011, has announced his intent to run again for the Conservatives, despite having to previously step down because of allegations around problems with his campaign spending.
In 2013, he lost a by-election to Liberal Yvonne Jones.
“It looked reasonably bad at the time and all it makes people think is you have this disgraced candidate and you’re going to run him again because nobody else will do it,” Blidook said.
The Green Party may split the vote in Fredericton
The sole Atlantic province where the Conservatives hope to have any presence is New Brunswick. But even in that relative Tory stronghold, support is crumbling. Incumbent Keith Ashfield in Fredericton is said to be in poor health and not campaigning as actively.
Nonetheless, Ashfield may benefit from a split vote in the riding, where Mary Lou Babineau – an associate professor at St. Thomas University – is running under the Greens' banner.
Corrigan Hammond, a regional organizer with Leadnow.ca, said a lot of people are excited about the Green Party, but some are concerned they could end up splitting the vote to benefit the Conservatives, since both the Green Party and the NDP are in strong contention in the riding.
Hammond pegs the Conservative’s ongoing popularity in the region to dissatisfaction with the provincial Liberals. He said Fredericton voters are saying they want to stop Harper, but also have told Leadnow they’re not certain who to throw their support behind.
The provincial Liberal government’s austerity measures and cost-cutting in its budget has shaped regional opinion of the federal Liberals, Hammond said.
Despite that, Harper’s recent visit to New Brunswick did more damage than help. A number of veterans were shut out of a legion branch in Fredericton when Harper passed through in August, lending regional steam to the national veterans' push for ABC – Anyone But Conservative.