MONCTON, N.B. – Two years after a historic election defeat, New Brunswick’s Liberals have turned to a politician who is relatively unknown to rebuild the party.
In electing Brian Gallant as their new leader on Saturday, the Liberals chose a youthful and a fresh new face over Mike Murphy, an experienced politician who served in the cabinet of former premier Shawn Graham.
The 30-year-old lawyer from Moncton appealed for the party to unite behind him in his acceptance speech.
“No matter who you voted for, I ask for your support, I ask for you help, I ask you to join us in continuing to renew this party and making sure that we get this government to be accountable and make sure that we win the election in 2014,” Gallant said.
The Liberals are two years removed from government in New Brunswick, but their defeat in September 2010 made history as they became the first party in the province to get only one-term in power. Graham resigned as party leader two months after the Progressive Conservative victory.
The Liberals have 13 members in the 55-seat legislature.
Gallant doesn’t have a seat in the house. He ran for a seat in 2006, losing to former Conservative premier Bernard Lord.
He said it’s too soon to decide if he’ll ask anyone to step aside to allow for a byelection where he could run, but he didn’t play down the importance of being in the legislature.
“There’s no doubt it’s going to be a big factor in trying to keep this government accountable,” he said. “We’re going to meet with the rest of the caucus and the New Brunswick Liberal Association office, and the people in the leader’s office to try to map out our plan.”
The party registered almost 19,000 people to vote for the leadership, with 14,672 ballots cast between Oct. 23 and Saturday afternoon. The new voting system that combined mail-in ballots with those cast online and by telephone produced the results about 30 minutes after the polls closed.
The candidates were vying for 100 points in each of the 55 ridings or a total of 5,500. Gallant won 59 per cent of the total points available. Murphy finished second with just shy of 38 per cent, while former Belledune mayor Nick Duivenvoorden had less than three per cent.
Murphy, 54, who left politics before the last election, told reporters the party had made a good choice.
“There’s a lot of work to be done,” he said. “It takes a lot of energy, and Brian has worked very hard.”
Duivenvoorden told the party faithful “the hard work starts now.”
The voting system used by the Liberals came under scrutiny on Friday when the executive director of the Conservative party registered to vote using his dog’s name and cast an online ballot. Jean-Paul Soucy questioned the integrity of the system, saying no one sought identification or called to validate who was voting.
But party president Britt Dysart said the voting system worked well and he was pleased with a first-ballot victory.
“It’s a clear decision by members of the party across the province,” Dysart said. “I think that helps the party going forward and I think it’s a testament to the strength of our leader.”
In his speech, Gallant addressed Conservative Premier David Alward over the dog-voting incident.
“Thousands of people have worked extremely hard in this democratic process and to have your executive director register a dog to ridicule our process is extremely discouraging,” he said.
Gallant planned meetings with his party executive Saturday evening and with caucus members on Sunday. He also wants to hold a policy convention some time next year.
Don Desserud, who is considered a leading expert on New Brunswick politics, said the Liberals have a chance to return to power in 2014 because voters in the province have shown they’re no longer willing to automatically give a government a second chance.
“You have a very volatile electorate and that makes it more unpredictable, so no government is safe,” said Desserud, who used to teach at the University of New Brunswick but is now the dean of arts at the University of Prince Edward Island.
“They can’t assume they’re going to win the next election just because they won the last one,” Desserud said. “When you put that scenario out there, the party in opposition could be in the commanding position very quickly.”
For the Liberals, the last election largely hinged on its decision to try and sell the provincial utility to Hydro Quebec. The unpopular deal failed and became a key issue in the 2010 campaign.