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New Brunswick election negotiations a struggle to control province’s direction

Premier Blaine Higgs he is willing to call an election as early as next week if the opposition refuses a deal to keep his minority Tory government in power until September 2022, or no earlier than 30 days after the pandemic ends.
Premier Blaine Higgs he is willing to call an election as early as next week if the opposition refuses a deal to keep his minority Tory government in power until September 2022, or no earlier than 30 days after the pandemic ends. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Stephen MacGillivray

Negotiations aimed at avoiding a snap election in New Brunswick have important implications for how the province manages future challenges such as the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, political experts say.

Premier Blaine Higgs has said he is willing to call an election as early as next week if the opposition refuses a deal to keep his minority Tory government in power until September 2022, or no earlier than 30 days after the pandemic is declared over by public health officials.

Read more: N.B. premier says snap election coming if opposition won’t sign ‘stability’ deal

Talks continued Thursday in Fredericton between the Progressive Conservatives, Liberals, Greens and the People’s Alliance on Higgs’ proposal that the opposition support his minority government. In return, an election would be avoided and each participating party would have a say in the legislative agenda.

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J.P. Lewis, a political scientist at the University of New Brunswick Saint John, said Higgs’ deal sets a high bar. If an agreement is to be had, Lewis said, it will likely be found “somewhere in the middle.”

He said the key to any grand coalition will be the accountability mechanisms included in the deal, which Lewis said will cover a time period that will see “some of the most significant policy making that New Brunswick would have faced in decades.”

“I think that’s the big implication,” Lewis said.

Higgs has publicly stated that he sees the ongoing talks as an opportunity to set the direction for the province over the next five or 10 years.

Lewis said Liberal Leader Kevin Vickers has shown he is open to co-operation, noting Vickers came to his job from outside the party and was relatively free of partisan politics. Vickers, the former sergeant-at-arms of the House of Commons, served as Canada’s ambassador to Ireland for four years prior to becoming party leader.

N.B. premier meets with opposition leaders to talk ‘stability’ agreement
N.B. premier meets with opposition leaders to talk ‘stability’ agreement

He said the motivations are slightly different for Green Party Leader David Coon and People’s Alliance Leader Kris Austin, who unlike Vickers and the Liberals, have a smaller chance of winning government if a snap election is called.

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“The other two leaders are both in situations where they maybe never dreamed of having the influence that they’ve had,” said Lewis. “So if there is a deal for them it could see them influence policy for the near future.”

Don Desserud, a political scientist at the University of Prince Edward Island, said a deal like the one proposed by Higgs has important political implications and isn’t without precedent.

Desserud said the formal agreement signed in 1985 in Ontario between David Peterson’s Liberals and Bob Rae’s NDP ended a 42-year Tory dynasty in that province.

“It held, and at the end of the two years it expired and Peterson called an election and they (Liberals) won a big majority,” he said.

Desserud said he believes Higgs’s threat of an election call was calculated to get the parties to the table, adding the premier “wants to be able to govern as if he has a majority.”

“It strikes me as an odd thing to do,” Desserud said, “but basically the bottom line is that he seems to want two years of stability so that he can focus on his agenda.”

Read more: All sides hopeful as talks to delay potential New Brunswick fall election to continue Thursday

Tom Bateman of St. Thomas University in Fredericton said he believes Higgs might have a difficult time getting the opposition onside.

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“It’s kind of fascinating because it would really represent an alteration of our parliamentary forms,” Bateman said. “And what’s in it for the opposition parties? They may argue for policy concessions that the government would find it very difficult to accept.”

Lewis said the sides are talking because there is a lack of polling data about what the public wants. He said if the current talks blow up Higgs could have political cover by blaming the opposition parties for provoking an unwanted election.

“I think it’s pretty good political strategy because he’s kind of putting the other parties in a tough place as well,” he said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 13, 2020.