Eyes turn to possible spring election as N.B. legislature rises for the winter

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Eyes turn to possible spring election as N.B. legislature rises for the winter
WATCH: The fall sitting of the New Brunswick legislature began under the cloud of a potential snap election. And while that call never came, as the house rises for the winter, some feel the province is likely headed to the polls in the spring. Silas Brown reports. – Dec 13, 2023

As the New Brunswick legislative assembly rises for the winter, some lawmakers are beginning to wonder if the 60th legislature’s days are numbered.

“I feel like sort of all the signposts are pointing to a spring election,” Green Leader David Coon said.

The fall sitting began under the threat of a possible snap election due to instability in the government caucus. Premier Blaine Higgs had refused to rule out calling a fall election until November, even admitting that he had come close to pulling the trigger. While that election never materialized, Coon said the months of indecisiveness by Higgs clearly showed in the government’s legislative agenda.

“It was an extremely light legislative agenda and that was partly because the public service was on hold because of all of the election speculation and the very real possibility the premier was going to pull the trigger on an election,” he said.

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“It was a very, very light session, not much work was achieved.”

The government tabled just 16 bills over the course of six and a half weeks. Last year’s fall sitting saw a total of 25.

The government also expedited controversial pension legislation, which converted five union locals from defined benefit pension plans to the shared risk model already used by most of the civil service. That bill received royal assent Tuesday, exactly two weeks after it was introduced.

Higgs said the bill had been slated for the fall sitting since the spring and said there was nothing to read into when it comes to the lower-than-normal tally of bills. He pointed to Tuesday’s energy strategy and work on the housing strategy as examples of government work that is being done outside the legislature.

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“That’s kind of where the focus has been and it doesn’t all require legislative bills to pass,” he said.

According to Liberal Leader Susan Holt, the relatively light legislative agenda, along with there only being two outstanding pieces of government legislation on the order paper, makes it seem like Higgs is clearing the way for a spring election.

“Look at the choices they’re making: they’re bringing forward bills that aren’t ready, they’re running out of patience with negotiations with unions and trampling on labour rights,” she said.

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“It just seems like a premier who is running out of time.”

Higgs and the New Brunswick PC Party hired Steve Outhouse as campaign manager in the fall and have been on a torrid fundraising push, appealing to conservatives from outside the province to donate to fuel the re-election campaign.

According to the province’s fixed election date law, polling day will be on Oct. 21, 2024, but nothing stops the premier from seeking a new mandate earlier. If Higgs wants to call an election as soon as possible, then the spring is his next opportunity.

The legislature is scheduled to return for the budget on March 19. After two weeks of sitting days to pass the budget, the assembly takes a month-long break from regular sitting days to allow departments to detail their budget estimates to MLAs before returning in May and June. Whether the legislature will survive until that point is ultimately up to the premier, but both opposition parties say they are staying ready for an election at any time.

“I’d hate to put odds on it, I’m not a betting woman,” Holt said.

“We saw a lot of instability in 2023 and I think that’s going to continue in 2024.”

Higgs refused to engage with questions about the likelihood of a spring election, but he did admit that his primary excuse for the need for one this fall has evaporated. All six of the Tory MLAs who had broken with the government in the spring have supported the government on every vote over the last three months.

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Higgs said “time has a way of healing.”

“We have a caucus that’s prepared to govern New Brunswick and that’s what’s important and we have one that’s shown on big issues we can be fully aligned and move forward in the right direction,” he said.

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