New Brunswick's Liberals approved a series of resolutions on contentious issues, such as abortion rights and shale gas development, at a weekend policy convention that is preparing the party for September’s election.

Liberal convention

New Brunswick Liberals voted to approve two resolutions at a weekend policy convention that expand abortion rights. (Jacques Poitras/CBC)

The most significant shift from the weekend came on abortion rights as two resolutions were overwhelmingly approved by grassroots members. The resolutions broke from the policy first established by former Liberal premier Frank McKenna.

The two policies refer to family planning services and reproductive health but the meaning was clear: with the pending closure of the Morgentaler clinic, Liberals now support greater access to abortion in hospitals.

'This is a clear signal that the party's moving beyond the position it's held in the past' - Wendy Robbins, Liberal

Wendy Robbins, a Liberal member, helped draft the wording of the resolutions.

"This is a clear signal that the party's moving beyond the position it's held in the past,” she said.

The resolutions called for "access to a full range of publicly funded family planning information and services" and to "improve access to reproductive health services that meet national standards and respect the Canada Health Act."

The McKenna government had a very different policy on abortion. For example, in 1989, McKenna said: "We believe that Dr. Morgentaler has no right to come in and establish his own clinics."

McKenna’s Liberal government created a policy that refused to cover abortions performed at the Morgentaler clinic and would only fund hospital abortions if a woman received approval from two doctors who certify the procedure is “medically necessary.”

Liberal MLA Denis Landry was in McKenna's caucus during the 1990s. He said a new generation of party members, including leader Brian Gallant, sees the issue of abortion rights differently.

"I have a hard time to manage my own body. Why should I be trying to manage somebody else's body?" Landry said.

The abortion rights issue has risen back to prominence in the last month after the Morgentaler clinic announced it will be closing at the end of July, ending a 20-year fight with the New Brunswick government.

Brian Duplessis

Brian Duplessis, a NDP candidate, said the Liberals still do not have a clear policy on abortion rights. (Jacques Poitras/CBC)

The abortion rights resolutions also prompted differing responses from the Liberal party’s two main political opponents.

Brian Duplessis, a NDP candidate in the Fredericton area, said he wants to know how the party’s leader will react to the policy amendments.

“Now the question is, will Brian Gallant listen to his members?" Duplessis said.

The NDP candidate said the Liberals still lack a clear policy on abortion rights after the weekend convention.

Progressive Conservative MLA Brian MacDonald agreed with the NDP.

"I haven't seen a clear position come from them [Saturday],” he said. 

Shale gas policy

Anti-shale gas activists demonstrate at the Liberal convention

Anti-shale gas activists demonstrate at the Liberal convention. (Jacques Poitras/CBC)

Liberal members also voted to approve Gallant’s call for a moratorium on shale gas development.

But they've rejected a call to make the moratorium last for four years.

Randy McKeen, a party candidate, tried to amend the policy on a shale gas moratorium to make it last until 2018 in case the party decides development is a good idea.

"We would be able to go the polls in four years time and campaign on that,” he said.

“Otherwise we risk coming out after this election and if we do change our mind, then we are being accused of bait and switch, and that's something we just don't want to have as a party."

McKeen's proposal to make the moratorium last for four years was voted down.

The wording approved by Liberal members puts no time limit on the moratorium and says the party could support development if recommendations by Dr. Eilish Cleary, the province’s chief medical officer of health, are put in effect.