New Brunswick·Analysis

3 ways Liberals, PCs swapping roles in abortion debate

With the New Brunswick Legislature beginning a new session this week, both of the province’s main political parties are changing their previous approaches to the abortion issue.

Premier Brian Gallant announced the elimination of the controversial 2-doctor rule last week

Premier Brian Gallant announced the elimination of what he considered unconstitutional restrictions to Medicare-funded abortion services in hospitals last week. (CBC)

With the New Brunswick Legislature beginning a new session this week, both of the province’s main political parties are changing their previous approaches to the abortion issue.

Premier Brian Gallant, who as opposition leader called for a debate on the subject, is now pointing out that it’s not necessary.

And the Progressive Conservatives, who in government tried to avoid the topic, now say they may try to force it onto the legislature’s agenda.

"A debate would be interesting just to see if everybody votes the party line,” says Opposition Leader Bruce Fitch, clearly relishing the idea of exposing Liberal divisions on the issue.

Opposition Leader Bruce Fitch said a debate on abortion in the legislature would be interesting to see if all MLAs vote "the party line."
Fitch, who is the interim leader of the Progressive Conservatives, says his caucus hasn’t decided for sure whether introduce a non-binding motion during one of the days set aside for opposition business.

Such a motion would only be an expression of the legislature’s opinion and would not have the legal force to undo the Gallant cabinet’s decision.

“It would probably be something very, very simple,” Fitch says.

“A yes-no vote.”

The legislature re-opens Wednesday for the first time since the Liberals won the provincial election.

Last week, Gallant announced the elimination of what he considered unconstitutional restrictions to Medicare-funded abortion services in hospitals.

The cabinet is amending provincial regulation 84-20 to remove a requirement that two doctors must certify an abortion as medically necessary, and that it be performed by a specialist.

The government is also promising that the procedure will be available in more hospitals than the two that offer it now.

The Tories were in favour of keeping those restrictions in place.

Gallant’s stance on abortion has been consistent since the issue flared up in the spring. In fact, he called himself pro-choice when he ran for the Liberal leadership in 2012.

But he may be less enthused about a wide-open debate now that cabinet has decided to revoke the restrictions effect Jan. 1.

And the Tories are also shifting their approach.

While neither party is altering the substance of their positions, here are three areas in which the Liberals and the PCs are now essentially swapping roles:

The need for a debate at all

In April, after the privately run Morgentaler clinic in downtown Fredericton announced it would close, Gallant raised the issue in the Legislature — ending the tacit, two-decade-old consensus among Liberals and PCs to avoid discussing it.

Marie-Claude Blais, the Alward government’s minister of the status of women, chastised Gallant for even raising the abortion issue on April 17. (CBC News)
He promised the opposition’s “full co-operation” if Premier David Alward launched “an independent review,” an offer the government rejected.

Alward and Health Minister Ted Flemming repeatedly refused to discuss the legality of the province’s regulations.

Marie-Claude Blais, the Alward government’s minister of the status of women, chastised Gallant for even raising the issue.

“It’s obvious the opposition leader is seizing the opportunity to score political points,” she said April 17.

Now, Gallant is pointing out that there’s no longer any need for a debate in the legislature. “Changing the regulation would be just out of cabinet,” he noted, correctly, this week.

He said cabinet had already approved the change by consensus, the usual decision-making mechanism.

But Fitch, whose party avoided the issue in the spring, now says a debate is needed because many New Brunswickers on both sides of the issue have raised it with him.

The relevance of personal views

When he addressed an abortion-rights rally in April, Gallant told the crowd that Alward was “personally pro-life” but added it was irrelevant to how the government should handle the issue.

Miramichi Liberal MLA Bill Fraser, who is now a cabinet minister, told an anti-abortion rally in the spring that Gallant respected his views on the issue. (Catherine Harrop / CBC)
Regardless, Blais attacked him for mentioning Alward’s personal views.

Then, at an anti-abortion rally later in the spring, Miramichi Liberal MLA Bill Fraser, then the Opposition house leader, underscored his own opposition to abortion when he spoke to protesters.

“Our leader is not imposing his personal view on me or anyone in our caucus,” Fraser said then.

“He respects my beliefs and the beliefs of our other caucus members.”

Last week, however, Fraser, now the tourism minister, did not respond to requests from CBC News that he explain in an interview how he would reconcile his views with the Gallant cabinet’s decision.

And while PC ministers avoided discussing their personal views when they were in power in the spring, Fitch now says the personal views of Liberals are fair game.

Fraser and other anti-abortion Liberal MLAs “have been on record saying things that are probably not parallel to what Premier Gallant brought out,” Fitch notes.

Fitch is now promising that if the PCs manage to force a debate on abortion, his MLAs will be free to vote based on their personal views.

“If it came to that point, we would be able to have our voice — I'm speaking about the individuals — because there are different views on this particular topic," he says.

The significance of differing views within the government

Fitch says Gallant’s comment that cabinet made the decision by consensus — and the premier’s refusal to say if it was unanimous — suggests there’s a split within the cabinet.

When David Alward was premier, he said divisions within his caucus should be seen as positive. (CBC)
But cabinet government always makes decisions by consensus and premiers always refuse to describe the discussions.

And when the PCs were in opposition, they often made a virtue of diverse views.

Blais herself said in the spring that the Tory party was home to a range of opinions on abortion, and then-finance minister Blaine Higgs frequently confirmed there were internal debates about his efforts to reduce government spending.

And not long after taking office, Alward acknowledged there were divisions about whether to continue expensive work to restore the Petitcodiac River.

It would probably be fair to assume that within a caucus there are different ideas as well," he said in December 2010.

"I hope people see that as positive."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jacques Poitras

Provincial Affairs reporter

Jacques Poitras has been CBC's provincial affairs reporter in New Brunswick since 2000. Raised in Moncton, he also produces the CBC political podcast Spin Reduxit.

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?

now