Election speculation cost New Brunswick nearly $2 million: chief electoral officer

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N.B. Liberals preparing platform for next provincial election – Jan 18, 2024

Months of speculation about a 2023 election that never came to pass in New Brunswick cost the government over $3.2 million in total and nearly $2 million in expenses that cannot be recovered, the province’s chief electoral officer has concluded.

Kim Poffenroth shared the figures in a Friday letter to the Standing Committee on Procedure, Privileges and Legislative Officers, in which she said Elections New Brunswick far exceeded the budget for 2023-2024 because it had to be ready in case voters were called to the polls early.

“The event to which I refer is the highly publicized speculation that surfaced in June 2023, and then again in September 2023, that the next provincial general election, scheduled for Oct. 21, 2024, could be called earlier than the scheduled date,” she said in the letter.

“Further, no direction was offered to contradict these rumours. In fact, statements being made through the media fuelled speculation. This left Elections New Brunswick with no choice but to accelerate preparations in order to deliver an unscheduled provincial general election.”

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Poffenroth’s letter does not mention Premier Blaine Higgs by name, but the dates she referenced align with several of his public statements. The premier began asserting in June that he needed a new mandate to quell dissent within his party and only dropped the speculation after his throne speech in October.

The spectre of an election began looming over the province after two of the premier’s former cabinet ministers — labour minister Trevor Holder and Dorothy Shephard in social development — quit in June, citing his inflexible leadership style and changes made to New Brunswick’s policy on gender identity in schools. Six Tory members of the legislature voted with the Opposition to call for an external review of the policy change. Higgs responded by dropping dissenters from cabinet and naming five new ministers.

Policy 713 states students under 16 who are exploring their gender identity must get their parents’ consent before teachers can use their preferred first names or pronouns at school — a reversal of the previous practice.

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The Tories survived a non-confidence vote in the last week of October, and Higgs hinted that the province should be ready for an election at any time. The premier noted at the time that the six rebel members of legislative assembly voted against the Opposition Liberals’ non-confidence amendment to the government’s recent throne speech.

But Higgs’s began facing internal strife as far back as October 2022 after his then education minister, Dominic Cardy, resigned from cabinet.

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Some Progressive Conservative party members called for Higgs to step down, but backed off in August after months of unsuccessful attempts to trigger a leadership review.

And although election chatter has subsided in recent months, Higgs remains under fire.

His government recently scrapped attempts to reform the province’s French immersion system after facing pushback on a plan to have Anglophone students receive half their education in French and bring their skills up to at least a “conversational level.”

And just this week, Higgs has faced criticism for province-hopping to raise funds for his election campaign.

He held fundraisers for his Progressive Conservatives in British Columbia and Alberta and has one scheduled next month in Ontario. Tickets for his Feb. 8 reception at Toronto’s Albany Club cost $250 a person, and dinner costs $1,000.

The premier’s office did not immediately return a request for comment on Poffenroth’s letter. But in an interview with The Canadian Press last month, Higgs said he was ready to pull the trigger and call a snap election.

“We were ready to go. We had a bus wrapped. We were in the mode and working our campaign out,” he said.

“But at the end of the day, we won the confidence vote (on the throne speech). I had a reason to believe that we would be able to manage and continue on through the fall.”

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Poffenroth’s letter said the province spent at least $1.7 million that cannot be recouped on tasks such as hiring and training election officers, building rentals and furniture supplies, telecommunication setups and renting of polling stations.

“Some expenditures, such as the purchase of equipment and printing of materials, would have been incurred regardless of when the election was held, and in most cases, were to be budgeted for in the next fiscal year,” she wrote, noting that figure totaled about $1.5 million.

“Other expenses such as rental fees, training expenses, salaries of returning office staff, are sunk costs, in the sense that they cannot be recovered and will likely be reincurred when the election is held.”

She also noted Elections New Brunswick has not yet received all expenses.

She also took the step of requesting an appearance before the Committee on Procedure, Privileges and Legislative Officers “at their earliest convenience” to discuss her findings and field questions.

Liberal Leader Susan Holt said the costs to taxpayers cannot be justified.

“It’s scary. It’s frustrating,” she said.

“That money could have been used to serve New Brunswickers. That represents hundreds of retention payments to nurses. You could invest in your children’s education. There’s tons of things you could do with almost $2 million. But throwing them away on the premier’s indecision and ego is a complete waste.”

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Green Leader David Coon said Higgs should have been decisive and not waffled on the election call.

“It was irresponsible on the part of the premier,” he said. “When a premier or a prime minister plans to call an early election, they call it. They don’t dither. I think this just reflected the divisions within his party. And the taxpayer paid for his problems.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 20, 2024.

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