Fresh off of meetings with the Progressive Conservative caucus this week, premier Blaine Higgs says the government will be staked on the budget, due to be tabled in March.
In the aftermath of the now abandoned health-care reforms that would have seen overnight emergency room service cut from six rural hospitals, opposition leaders were quick to suggest that Higgs should send New Brunswickers to the polls.
People’s Alliance leader Kris Austin said “the writing was on the wall” for the government, Green Party leader David Coon suggested that the government had lost the confidence of the house, and Liberal leader Kevin Vickers has repeatedly vowed to do whatever it takes to bring down the government at the earliest opportunity.
The proposed reforms even cost Higgs his deputy premier and only Acadian member of the government Robert Gauvin, who left the party to sit as an independent.
But with rhetoric calming down somewhat since the government announced it was backtracking on the reforms, Higgs says it is “unlikely” that an election is called before the budget is tabled on March 10, even if the idea came up during caucus meetings this week.
“The range of discussion went anywhere from, you know, let’s go into an election to well, we’ve got a good budget, it’s a budget that we’ve planned on all along, we don’t have to change it,” he said.
“We thought a lot about and talked about does it make sense to present the budget and our hands will be in the fate of the opposition. We haven’t completely decided but we had a lot of discussion on the pros and cons of that.”
As of now Higgs says the plan is to table the budget on schedule, but gaining enough support for it to pass is another matter, despite the optimistic tone from the premier.
“I don’t know how anyone can vote against this budget really,” he said.
“I feel very confident in the budget, in it’s form, because it is a budget for New Brunswick. It’s not an election budget, it’s a budget for New Brunswick.”
Already Vickers has said the Liberals will vote against the budget, as has Gauvin.
Higgs said Friday that he has offered Vickers a briefing on the budget, a statement the Liberal leader was quick to dispute.
“There’s no message on my phone, no message for me at the party office or opposition office on this. I did receive a message from the premier this week on the coronavirus, but that was it,” he said in an emailed statement.
“The premier needs to check his facts. I’ve received no offer to see the budget. That statement is false.”
The premier also said that both Coon and Austin had a chance to look at the budget. Austin confirmed he had been briefed, but Coon said he has yet to receive the same.
Coon has repeatedly said that he will wait until he sees the budget to make up his mind on how he’ll vote, but he has an idea of what he’s looking for.
“For me it has to do with the well-being of New Brunswickers and this budget really needs to make a difference in the lives of New Brunswickers. Everyone knows what the challenges are in health-care, social development and for seniors and those need to be addressed,” he said.
“Is it going to improve care, is it going to improve the lives of New Brunswickers that need the support of government in one way or another in the form of care? That will be my litmus test.”
The number at the bottom of the budget is something Coon will also be keeping an eye on. He says the need for a new contract for nursing home workers, the need to address poverty and emergency wait times means the province can’t afford to run a surplus, which is a hallmark promise of the Higgs government.
Coon says that with the debt holding steady, paying it down in large chunks doesn’t need to be a priority.
“There’s no reason we can’t just leave the debt where it’s at this year and give up on the premier’s commitment to a large surplus and put that money into where it’s really needed to help resolve some of the really serious challenges we’re facing,” Coon said.
Support from the other third party is looking increasingly likely, however.
After his briefing Austin said he is much more likely to support the budget than he was a week ago when he said it would have to contain significant movement on key Alliance priorities like tax reform or language rights.
He declined to provide details, but said he can live with the overview he was presented with.
“There are some things in there that I’ve been pushing for. The only criticism I would give is it’s slower than—we want to see quicker, bolder action, whereas from what I’ve seen in this budget, again, it’s a step in the right direction,” he said.
“There’s some good things, just not as quickly as I’d like to see them.”
Austin said that the alliance caucus will have to discuss further once they’ve seen the line-by-line breakdown of the budget, but that he believes New Brunswickers want stability and aren’t interested in going to the polls just a little over a year after the last provincial election.
“I’ve always said, so long as the budgets and throne speeches are heading in the right direction I’m willing to give the government time to make changes here in New Brunswick,” he said.
“We’re willing to work with government to give stability so that people don’t have to go to the polls.”