Three Liberal cabinet ministers and two other Liberal MLAs have informed Premier Shawn Graham they would not vote for the contentious NB Power deal, CBC News has learned.
The proposed deal to sell NB Power to Hydro-Québec has garnered intense public opposition since it was announced in October.
Social Development Minister Kelly Lamrock told CBC News in an interview that he couldn't vote to sell NB Power. And he said he wasn't alone in feeling he had to listen to his constituents and oppose the planned power deal.
"And a whole bunch of my colleagues, even though they don't get to stand up in front of the cameras the way they might have when we were in opposition, have been communicating with the premier," Lamrock said.
CBC News has learned that the issue came to a head at a Liberal caucus meeting last Tuesday night.
Graham had asked his MLAs for a candid account of their feelings about the proposed deal. That is when several MLAs expressed to the premier that they could not vote for the current deal.
Lamrock wouldn't detail what happened in that meeting, citing the importance of caucus confidentiality.
But Lamrock said he and fellow Fredericton Liberal MLA T.J. Burke felt bound by the 2006 election promise that a Liberal government would not sell the utility. And he said both he and Burke could not have voted for the deal as it had been presented.
Burke could not be reached on Monday.
"We have told the premier that we did not see enough public support to release us from our promise," Lamrock said.
Liberals announce amended deal
Later on Monday, Finance Minister Greg Byrne told reporters that an amended deal will be made public on Wednesday and that the new agreement has the full support of the caucus.
"I think that now, when we bring forth this amended agreement, people will see that we did listen and that caucus members did play a significant role in this," said Byrne.
"That's one thing about the Liberal party — there is an opportunity for discussion and for a difference of opinion and for listening."
Lamrock said in November that he would listen to his constituents before voting on the deal. Those discussions led him to a very clear conclusion, he said.
"Right now today, if you said to me, 'Could you vote in good conscience for the complete sale of NB Power?' No I couldn't do that," Lamrock said.
5 Liberals spoke out at caucus meeting
Saint John Liberal MLA Abel LeBlanc said in an interview that five Liberals all told Graham at the Tuesday night caucus meeting that they would not support the NB Power deal if it came to a vote.
"The caucus meeting we had on Tuesday, we should have had last November. I think things would have been totally different," LeBlanc said.
LeBlanc said Lamrock, Burke, Tourism and Parks Minister Stuart Jamieson and Human Resources Minister Rick Brewer all explained to Graham during the meeting that they would oppose the deal.
Brewer would not confirm in an interview that he was among the five caucus members who outlined their intention to vote against the agreement, citing caucus confidentiality.
Brewer said, however, that he had listened to his constituents and he had taken their concerns to the premier.
"If NB Power, as the Crown corporation, isn't sold it will make a lot of people in the province very happy," Brewer said.
There are 22 Progressive Conservatives in the legislative assembly so it would take five Liberals to vote against the deal for it to fail.
The day after the caucus meeting, Graham told the legislature that ownership of the energy system would remain in New Brunswick, which would signal a major shift in the nature of the deal.
Graham told reporters on Monday at the opening of a new school that there had not been any caucus revolt.
When asked if the proposed deal had 100 per cent backing from the Liberal caucus, Graham replied: "Yes, very much so."
Under the proposed deal, New Brunswick would sell a majority of its assets to Hydro-Québec for $4.8 billion, which would erase the utility's debt.
The agreement, which was announced in October, would freeze residential rates for five years and cut large industrial rates to the same levels as in Quebec.