New Brunswick

Liberals softening on more controversial legislation

The Gallant government is dropping hints that it may back down on another controversial piece of legislation, the second such climbdown in as many days.

Government open to changing proposed reforms to binding arbitration

Premier Brian Gallant told the Legislature he had meetings with union leaders Tuesday night regarding changes to binding arbitration. (CBC)

The Gallant government is dropping hints that it may back down on another controversial piece of legislation, the second such climbdown in as many days.

After signaling Tuesday that they may even let changes to the Inquiries Act die altogether, the Liberals said Wednesday they're looking for "solutions" to their proposed reforms to the binding arbitration process.

Union leaders have denounced the reforms, saying they'll give employers including municipalities and universities more leverage in contract talks.

In the legislature Wednesday, Opposition MLAs praised the Liberal surrender on inquiries and urged them to do the same on the arbitration amendments, which are part of Bill 24, the so-called omnibus bill.

"This government has shown us they can learn the errors of their ways," PC MLA Brian Macdonald said in a member's statement. "So let's take it a step further. They're on a roll. We ask the premier today to reverse his position on arbitration."

Leader of the Opposition, Bruce Fitch, said the arbitration changes could be studied by the law amendments committee. (CBC)
In question period, interim PC leader Bruce Fitch said the Liberals could separate the arbitration changes from the omnibus bill so they can be studied by the law amendments committee.

That's the same committee that will study the Inquiries Act changes.

Premier Brian Gallant responded to Fitch by revealing he and other government officials held meetings with union leaders Tuesday night.

"I participated in a few of them to see if there's a path forward, and we'll certainly let the member opposite know as soon as we have any sense of if that's the case," said Gallant.

Let's find a positive solution for everybody's sake.- Donald Arsenault, Liberal cabinet minister

Labour minister Francine Landry would not speak to reporters Wednesday, but cabinet minister Donald Arseneault said the government is open to watering down the provisions.

"There were challenges presented to us, and we have to find solutions," he said.

Asked if that included changing the bill, he said, "we're not ruling anything out."

The amendments to binding arbitration include a final-offer provision.

It would require each side in a labour dispute to present a proposal and an arbitrator to choose one or the other.

The arbitrator would lose the existing option to come up with a compromise between the two.

Such provisions are intended to discourage either side from making unrealistic proposals for fear the arbitrator will pick the other side's.

The amendments would also let the government choose a pool of arbitrators instead of allowing the two sides to choose that person, and would require the arbitrator to consider economic circumstances in awarding pay raises.

Municipalities want changes

Municipalities have asked for some of the changes, saying the current system leads to arbitrators granting large wage hikes.

The say they sometimes agree to big hikes themselves out of fear an arbitrator will go even higher.

The city of Moncton said last month when it signed a new contract with firefighters that those employees will have seen a 50-per-cent pay increase over two contracts, increases the city felt it had to grant to avoid the risk of arbitration.

Cabinet Minister Donald Arseneault says the government wants to find a positive solution for everyone involved in the arbitration process. (CBC)
Arseneault acknowledged that Wednesday, but said union concerns have to be heeded as well.

"There are challenges out there, let's not kid ourselves," he said. "So let's find a positive solution for everybody's sake.

"Collective bargaining is a process we have in our country," Arsenault added. "They're very concerned if that process changes. It goes against the Charter."

Macdonald says police and fire unions would probably accept linking increases to economic circumstances if the government gave up the provisions on final offer and selecting a pool of arbitrators.

Macdonald and Green leader David Coon say the first-responder unions are a special case, because during the McKenna government's time, they agreed to give up the right to strike in return for the existing binding-arbitration system.

Government tone 'softened'

Coon says the tone of the government's rhetoric "has softened, I would say. So maybe there's a willingness and an appetite to shift on what's there. I hope so."

The PC opposition floated two ways for the Liberals to reverse course on arbitration: either break up Bill 24, the omnibus bill, into various pieces of legislation to be debated individually, or separate the arbitration provisions for review by the law amendments committee.

"This is the trap with an omnibus bill," Macdonald said. "It's all or nothing. They've put everything in together, so now they're in tough spot because if they want to change one part, they're opening up the whole bill."

Arseneault wouldn't speculate about what option the Liberals might choose if they agree to changes.

"The arbitration is only one piece of Bill 24," he said. "There's all sorts of options in front of us and these are things we're discussing with stakeholders."

On Tuesday, Attorney General Serge Rousselle sent Bill 26 and Bill 27, the two bills overhauling the laws on inquiries, to to the law amendments committee.


Jacques Poitras

Provincial Affairs reporter

Jacques Poitras has been CBC's provincial affairs reporter in New Brunswick since 2000. He grew up in Moncton and covered Parliament in Ottawa for the New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal. He has reported on every New Brunswick election since 1995 and won awards from the Radio Television Digital News Association, the National Newspaper Awards and Amnesty International. He is also the author of five non-fiction books about New Brunswick politics and history.