4 take-aways from Gallant government's first legislative session
Legislature adjourned on Friday for the summer
With a pile of bills rushed through committee study in recent days, the New Brunswick Legislature convened one last time Friday for a final, raucous question period and a visit from the lieutenant-governor to give royal assent to the legislation.
Here are four take-aways from this first session of the 58th legislature:
1. Brian Gallant is new, but not entirely
The Progressive Conservatives criticize Gallant as inexperienced and not ready for government. But he has quickly adopted the same rhetorical style as previous premiers, dismissing opposition attacks as negative and misleading, and often simply refusing to respond in question period to questions he considers repetitive.
Last week, confronted with an apparent contradiction between a government ad campaign promoting the nursing home policy and his own criticism of partisan ads by the previous PC government, Gallant simply changed the subject. He hauled out some old quotations by PC cabinet ministers that he had promised to dig out the day before, all but ignoring the insistent questioning about the ads.
Gallant told reporters Friday he wasn't irritated or angry, but "I certainly felt it was the same questions coming up over and over from the opposition."
PC Leader Bruce Fitch, who pushed Gallant to apologize to seniors for changes to the nursing home fee formula, said the repetition was necessary. "If I had a response the first time I asked the question, I wouldn't ask it again," he said.
2. The PCs have seen the world from both sides now
During the four years they were in government, the Tories often talked about fiscal restraint and the need for tough decisions. Yet they've criticized Liberal spending restraint in a wide range of areas.
This week, they sounded a skeptical note about the Liberal plan to merge four government organizations — Service New Brunswick, the New Brunswick Internal Services Agency, the Department of Government Services, and FacilicorpNB — into a single Crown corporation.
Minister Ed Doherty says the government expects to save $42 million by 2020-21 with the merger, but his acknowledgement that the change is a work in progress prompted warnings from the PCs, including former finance minister Blaine Higgs. That led cabinet minister Victor Boudreau to quote Higgs' budget speech last year.
"He said, 'these challenges require us to make tough choices, and I have no doubt there are tough choices left to come.' But every time this Liberal government makes tough choices … they get up and they criticize."
3. Fracking isn't going away
Gallant won the election on a promise of a shale-gas moratorium, but the PCs continue to criticize him for implementing it. PC energy critic Jake Stewart even said he'd refrain from slamming Gallant for breaking a promise if he cancelled the moratorium.
And the PCs cite the shale freeze every time there's bad economic news, such as a persistently high unemployment rate. "These guys have squandered one of the biggest economic development opportunities in a generation," MLA Trevor Holder said Friday. "They've sent a message that we're not open for business."
Even Gallant is keeping the door open. He said a new report by the U.S. Environment Protection Agency, which found fracking doesn't systemically affect drinking water, would be worth looking at.
"It's a very credible institution, there's no doubt about it," he said. "That's one of the reasons why over the last couple of years we said that a moratorium on hydraulic fracturing was the right position as we waited for very credible institutions to look into this matter. … It's going to be important for the commission we've appointed to do an independent and exhaustive job looking at all the evidence and take this report into consideration."
4. One Green MLA does not a revolution make
David Coon was the first-ever member of his party to win a seat in the legislature, and he's carved out a reputation as an earnest believer in the traditional role of elected members. Coon has resolutely taken part in committee study of legislation and has gamely introduced bills that he knew were unlikely to pass.
One would have established government programs to support a sustainable local food industry; another would have cancelled the industrial forestry contracts the previous PC government signed last year.
He has also raised issues, such as the long-standing Liberal-PC method of allocating student summer job funding, that the two traditional parties might never have brought up.
But it's also become clear Coon's power to change things is limited. His bills were defeated, and his efforts to send some bills to the law amendments committee — which is able to hold public hearings and call expert witnesses — have been stymied. He blames the centralization of power in the cabinet and the premier's office, at the expense of MLAs.
"We need to make sure our committees and private members have the ability to provide real scrutiny of bills, to bring witnesses in, to bring the public in, and to make amendments that get adopted," he said.