The final day of the 60th New Brunswick legislature last week followed what has become a familiar theme over the last year and what’s likely to become a defining topic of this fall’s election.

As the Liberals and Progressive Conservatives traded shots in question period, Premier Blaine Higgs’ leadership was front and centre, particularly with respect to heavily criticized travel nurse contracts.

“The premier has created a culture of circumventing process, of circumventing oversight the auditor general was looking for, the controls the auditor general was looking for,” Liberal Leader Susan Holt said in question period on Friday.

The messaging may be a preview of what’s to come as lawmakers disperse to begin fundraising and canvassing their ridings ahead of October’s vote.

Higgs’ response to the focus on his leadership has been to tout his economic record and the province’s surging population.

“You know what she doesn’t talk about is the tremendous success in province and what we’re doing now that’s never been done before. So we can talk about decisions made and changes and all that, but Mr. Speaker, our province is stronger and better than it ever has been before,” he said.

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Jamie Gilles, a professor of communications and public policy at St. Thomas University, says that messaging is expected from incumbents, but points out that Higgs has also added an increased focus on social issues, like gender identity and sex ed, to his repertoire over the last year. Those issues, and his leadership style, have caused divisions within his party but have featured heavily in fundraising messaging.

Gilles says he’s curious to see what tone Higgs’ summer takes.

“Which Higgs government do we see?” he said.

“Is it the fiscal management, small-c, fiscal conservative government or is it the government that’s more pivoting to these right-wing social type of issues?”

Click to play video: 'N.B. premier quiet ahead of upcoming election'

As for the Liberals, Gilles says they will need to figure out how to make those criticisms of Higgs’ leadership stick.

Recent polling from Narrative Research has the Liberals with a three-point lead, well within the margin of error. The poll also suggests that nearly a third of voters are undecided. University of New Brunswick political science professor JP Lewis said that for the Liberals, a successful summer will include growing the profile of Holt, while the Tories will have a lot of work to replace the 12 MLAs who have opted not to run again.

With the vote expected to be tight, potentially coming down to a few key ridings, Lewis said he’ll be watching closely where the leaders decide to spend their summers.

“The time they spend in every place can’t be wasted,” he said. “So watching where they go will help us understand where they think are the places they either have to defend or they can grow their support.”

The election is scheduled for Oct. 21.