Student issues irrelevant on campaign trail

With the Sept. 22 New Brunswick election coming into focus, the campaign trail is oddly quiet, notably lacking any big news from parties’ post-secondary education platforms.

St. Thomas University political science professor Tom Bateman said the economy is the number one issue facing the province, and talk of balanced budgets and keeping jobs in the province have dominated election campaigns as we round the corner into the second half of campaign season, which began Aug. 21.

“There is a slow recognition that we’ve dug ourselves into a fairly deep hole,” Bateman said. “We’ve put off for too long serious changes that have to be made. Any government coming in is going to have to address them or things will simply become worse and even more perilous.”

While there is a perceived need for drastic policy changes to keep New Brunswick’s economy afloat, that is not often reflected in campaign promises.

“None of the parties seem to be offering sweeping change and it smacks a little bit of politics as usual,” STU communications professor Jamie Gillies said.

David Alward’s Progressive Conservative government has ramped up the rhetoric on in its pro-resource development, pro-job creation stance with its campaign, which tells people to “say yes” to more than $10 billion in new private investment.

Provincial Liberals have been relatively mum, save for a vague $900 million promise to stimulate the economy by improving infrastructure.

The Greens, Liberals and New Democratic Party all plan to at least briefly halt shale gas exploration. The NDP released a plan of action to determine the viability of natural resource extraction propositions in their official platform while the Liberal Party has stated an intention to put a moratorium on all hydraulic fracturing operations until there is concrete evidence that it is safe to proceed. The Greens promise to “ban the exploration and exploitation of shale gas” in their platform.

Meanwhile, post-secondary students are getting little attention from candidates and media.

“I have not seen student related issues become salient in the campaign,” Bateman said. “So relatively little has been said about post-secondary education, about tuition fees, about student debt and so on. The thing that the parties have emphasized is that jobs and a strong economy will be good for students once they are done.”

The accessibility of abortion is another issue that Bateman can’t see playing a major role on the campaign trail.

Despite extensive coverage of Fredericton’s private Morgentaler Clinic, he said the parties know who vote for them, and are not looking to rock the boat on the issue. He said the traditionally Catholic Liberal’s have the most at stake on the abortion issue.

“I think what the Liberals have been saying is that they will hue closely to court pronouncements on the matter, and they will seek the advice of independent advisors on next steps… Which means what? Who knows?” Bateman said. “Though in my opinion the center of gravity for the liberals is pro-choice, they don’t want to alienate their Catholic voters either.”

The Brian Gallant-led Liberal Party appears to have a stranglehold over the most recent Corporate Research Associates poll released Sept. 2, which put them ahead of the Tories by 19 per cent.

“That could mean that they are coasting to victory on Sept. 22, or it could mean that the real campaign has not begun and will not until the public gets a better sense of the leaders after the first debate,” Gillies said. “Then perhaps we might see some movement in the polls.”

In contrast with the Liberals, Bateman said that the NDP may have the most answers to questions facing the province.

Already the NDP has made promises to end corporate welfare, claiming $150 million had been passed from the government to companies that no longer exist since 2005; eliminate the small business tax; create a job creation tax credit and focus on tourism.

“The NDP this time, as in 2010, has a very reasonable and even kind of a viable platform,” Bateman said. “Now they may be the most articulate on these important questions because they have the luxury of not looking forward to becoming the government, but nevertheless they can have some influence on the shape of the debate.”

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