As New Brunswickers make their way to the polls on Monday, many of them know that their province is home to one of the most effective parliamentarians in the region — if not in the whole country. Elizabeth Weir, leader of the provinceâe(TM)s New Democrats since 1988, is a one-woman force for the interests of the people of New Brunswick against those who have bought into the neo-liberal agenda of much of the rest of the country. She does it so well, that even her political foes admit to a grudging admiration.
If all goes as expected, Weir will retain her seat of Saint John Harbour and if the stars are aligned in her favour, perhaps she will go back to the legislature with the company of another New Democrat or two. She will go back having heard countless times — as her friends and supporters and campaign workers will have heard countless times: “Iâe(TM)d really like to vote for your party but Iâe(TM)m not going to because your party doesnâe(TM)t have a chance of winning.”
Forgive me. This is a point of view Iâe(TM)ve never been able to comprehend but it is uncommonly prevalent, not only in New Brunswick but in many other areas of the country. In this election, Weir is closer to the New Brunswick electorate on health care, education, auto insurance — which has emerged as a major issue during the campaign — than the two other parties sheâe(TM)s battling. By most accounts, she was the winner of the two debates among the three leaders — with a combination of broad knowledge, scathing wit, and political savvy. But she will once again hear voters say, “I couldnâe(TM)t vote for your party; I didnâe(TM)t want to lose my vote.”
Weir is everything a politician should be: sheâe(TM)s fearless and funny, tough and compassionate, a listener and an orator. She became NDP leader when Frank McKenna, the golden boy of the Upper Canadian business elites and the darling of the national media, was premier and his Liberal party held every seat in the New Brunswick legislature. She became known as one of the few people in the province who could, as New Brunswickers like to say, “cut him down to size.” The fact that she stood over him by a head-and-a-half added to the enjoyment people took in her wicked jibes.
Elizabeth Weir entered the House in the election of 1991 and has been there ever since. Frank McKenna retired from provincial politics in 1997 and was succeeded by a long-time Liberal MLA and cabinet minister, Camille Theriault. Theriault was widely expected to become the next premier of New Brunswick when, out of nowhere came a young Tory named Bernard Lord who campaigned on a list of promises that he said he would honour in his first 200 days. It was a campaign gimmick and it was seen to be that, but Theriault was uninspiring and a lot of people voted Tory, out of admitted curiousity to see if Lord could do all he said he would in 200 days. And so, New Brunswick found itself with a youthful, unknown and inexperienced premier and settled in to watch his first 200 days.
Meanwhile, the national media had been a-pining since McKennaâe(TM)s departure and had, once again, put New Brunswick on its back burner. Until one day, Bernard Lord made one impressive speech at the 2002 federal PC convention and before you could say Jeffrey Simpson, New Brunswick once again had a premier with a national profile and a slew of admirers in Tory circles around the country, all of whom were clamouring for him to run for the federal Tory leadership.
He passed on the federal leadership but he takes that national profile into this provincial election. However, New Brunswickers have never needed validation from Toronto columnists and they will choose their government based on the issues that affect them in their daily lives. For all the name-recognition of Frank McKenna and Bernard Lord, there are still many New Brunswickers living in unemployment and poverty. There is inadequate child care, lax environmental regulation, too-high auto insurance rates, a breakdown in the efficient delivery of health care, and a frustrating education system where students, teachers and parents too often feel that theyâe(TM)re by-passed in the decision-making that affects all of them.
Elizabeth Weir, who has three times been the recipient of the NewBrunswick Nurses’ Association Healthy Public Policy Award for her effortsto improve health care for the province’s citizens, is the one politician who has kept these issues in the public eye. Sheâe(TM)s no Globe and Mail sweetheart; her name-recognition is elsewhere. She has been a member of several delegations working on international democracy development projects. She has worked helping to train parliamentarians in Mozambique, Northern Ireland, Bosnia, Macedonia and most recently, in Niger.
She is an honorary member of Local 273 of the International Longshoremen.
If her fellow New Brunswickers decide to take a chance on her party and understand that there is no vote thatâe(TM)s a “lost” vote, Elizabeth Weir may return to the legislature with NDP seat mates. If that happens, she will no longer simply have to keep issues in the public eye but she will have a profound social democratic influence on New Brunswickâe(TM)s political agenda.
New Brunswick voters should be so lucky.