New Brunswick opposition leaders lay out priorities for fall legislature sitting

Click to play video: 'Blaine Higgs to maintain careful balance as New Brunswick legislature returns on Tuesday'
Blaine Higgs to maintain careful balance as New Brunswick legislature returns on Tuesday
New Brunswick MLAs will return to the legislature on Tuesday. As Silas Brown reports, Premier Blaine Higgs will have to work hard to maintain his opposition allies. – Nov 18, 2019

The New Brunswick Legislature will return Tuesday after a five-month hiatus and opposition leaders are lining up try and force their priorities on the agenda.

It’s been almost exactly a year since Blaine Higgs formed a slim minority government after signing an 18-month confidence agreement with the People’s Alliance of New Brunswick (PANB).

But according to the party’s leader, Kris Austin, support from the party is not a given moving forward.

“Over the last year they have been relatively good to work with,” Austin said of his legislative allies.

“But … going forward, we move out of the discussion and consulting stage and let’s make these things happen.”

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The PANB went from zero to three seats in the 2018 election.

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It was a result that allowed them to hold the balance of power in a tightly contested legislature. They eventually decided to offer support in confidence matters to the Progressive Conservatives.

Austin stressed that he will continue to honour the agreement, but said he’ll take a “wait and see” approach when evaluating the prospect of another similar confidence agreement.

“What I’m looking for really is some bold moves, some practical things on the ground to help New Brunswickers in everyday life. You know, things like tax reform, health care,” he said.

“We can get frustrated with the lack of movement. It seems to be a very timid approach on a lot of these issues and New Brunswick is at a place where we can’t be timid. We need bold moves … and to say, look, these are big issues that have to be resolved and aren’t going to be resolved if we just tinker around the edges.”

Preparing to return to the legislature as the official Opposition, the Liberal Party is taking aim at the government’s economic record.

The party points to lay-offs at a wallboard plant in St. Stephen earlier this year and the news that the Brunswick Smelter in Belledune will be shut down by the end of the year.

“The reality is, we have a premier that says he is a champion and a good manager and is good with the economy but after only one year we are living in a disaster,” said Liberal caucus chair Jean-Claude D’Amours.

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“Businesses are closing, people are losing their jobs, families are questioning what will be their future. So the priority should be specifically on the economy and ensure also that we have a plan for northern and rural New Brunswick.”

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Liberal Leader Kevin Vickers will continue to helm the party from outside the legislature. Vickers has not yet had the chance to seek a seat, but two byelections will have to be held by the spring.

When asked about his evaluation of Blaine Higgs’ first year as premier, Green Party Leader David Coon says the government has acted “as if they have a majority” and has been overly focused on the province’s finances at the expense of New Brunswickers.

“There has to be more than simply a focus on fiscal management, managing the finances. There needs to be a real purpose delivered to our public service to act on to improve the well being of New Brunswickers,” Coon said.

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“That’s what government surely is about. It’s improving the well-being of its citizens and ensuring their security and without a clear strategy for doing that you wonder what the government is doing.”

Coon said the priorities for the Green Party for the upcoming session are improving the province’s health-care delivery, introducing measures to strengthen community development, and real strategies to address the province’s above-average poverty rates, suggesting a universal basic income pilot program for the northern part of the province.

But when asked where common ground with the Tories might be found, Coon suggested health care would be a good place to start, but said cross-aisle collaboration was a struggle during the first year of the Higgs government.

“Perhaps reforming our health-care system and transforming our primary health care to better serve New Brunswickers, that’s something I remain convinced is possible but we need to have real discussion about the substance of what that might contain,” he said.

“Collaboration to me is we actually sit down and discuss our ideas about how to resolve problems and better serve New Brunswickers and the idea of the government so far is to say this is how we’re going to do it and if you support it then you’re being collaborative.”

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Higgs was unavailable for an interview Monday but said in a statement that he appreciates the “no-nonsense” approach from the PANB and Green Party but accuses the Liberals of “doing nothing more than playing politics with their typical rhetoric.”

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“As a government, we have set our priorities, and we will continue to work on finding solutions, cleaning up the mess that we inherited and doing what is right to deliver results. We are committed to affordable and responsive government, energizing the private sector, and ensuring we have dependable health care and a world-class education system,” reads the statement.

The third session of the 59th legislature will officially begin Tuesday at 1 p.m. with a speech from the throne. Protestors from the group Save Clinic 554 as well as the National Farmers Union of New Brunswick will be taking over the legislature’s lawn throughout the day.

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