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N.B. political consensus fractures over temporary foreign workers amid push to recall legislature

Political tone shifting in New Brunswick
WATCH: Our political leaders have shown an unprecedented level of collaboration in responding to the COVID-19 pandemic. But as Silas Brown reports, as the province shifts towards recovery, the political tone is shifting too.

Disagreements over the decision to ban temporary foreign workers from New Brunswick are exposing cracks in the political consensus that has ruled the province’s COVID-19 response.

Premier Blaine Higgs announced the decision to bar seasonal foreign workers on Tuesday, which has drawn criticism from opposition parties as well as the industries that employ the workers.

Both the agriculture and seafood sectors depend on foreign labour and have questioned the government’s decision.

READ MORE: N.B. to launch new website for 600 positions left vacant without temporary foreign workers

On the day of the announcement, Higgs said he had the support of the all-party cabinet. But that support appears to not have been unanimous.

“If there is general consensus it seems that decisions are made,” said Green Party leader David Coon.

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“Unanimity is not part of the decision-making process.”

Coon also suggested that the decision was made in a “pressure-cooker situation” where about 175 workers were about to board planes for the province.

Coronavirus outbreak: New Brunswick minister says job protections in place for workers
Coronavirus outbreak: New Brunswick minister says job protections in place for workers
A release from Liberal MLA Isabelle Thériault said the “last-minute decision, to ban temporary foreign workers is causing great concern in our fishing and agriculture sectors about [the] state of uncertainty.”

Higgs acknowledged that the decision was rushed and said the province moved to eliminate the risk posed by the incoming workers, with the goal of working with producers to mitigate the damage afterwards.

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“We can stop and we can think about it and say, ‘Oh, wish we had down something there,’ or we can react and find a way to mitigate impacts on businesses around the province,” Higgs said.

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The disagreements are laying bare the behind-the-scenes fractures between party leaders who have shown unprecedented levels of collaboration throughout the province’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

READ MORE: N.B. Green leader calls for exemptions for temporary foreign workers for farms

Both Coon and Liberal leader Kevin Vickers are calling for the province’s legislature to be recalled in some form.

They say they want to allow for discussions, currently taking place behind closed doors, to be made public.

Coon said the all-party cabinet committee is “no longer sufficient” and says a public committee should be established to replace it once the legislature returns.

Vickers said that it’s time to get “government back to work.”

“The cabinet committee discussions are held behind closed doors under a cloak of secrecy. We are prohibited from discussing the specifics of what goes on behind closed doors. We have done well so far in navigating the public health crisis. But we need to have a more open and public discussion of the steps we need to take to recover from this crisis,” Vickers wrote in an op-ed circulated by the Liberal party.

“In terms of economic recovery for example, we are going to have different perspectives. We believe there needs to be action taken in the short, medium and long term to help our businesses survive this crisis.”

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Industries concerned over New Brunswick’s decisions to keep temporary foreign workers away
Industries concerned over New Brunswick’s decisions to keep temporary foreign workers away

Party leaders met on Thursday to discuss a date for the legislature to return and the Legislative Administration Committee (LAC) is working on proposals for how sittings could work.

Higgs said he’s proud of the collaboration that has allowed the province to roll out its response almost seamlessly.

“I don’t think there’s any question that the collaboration that’s existed through this cabinet committee has yielded the results,” he said.

“The people that work in the system have benefitted from the fact that we haven’t been firing political barbs at each other.”