Liberals' grip on power could hinge on change to ambulance services

People's Alliance Leader Kris Austin said Thursday his party could support a Liberal throne speech if it promises quick action on the province's ambulance problem.

Green Party calls for inquiry into ambulance problems

Issues like ambulance delays and bilingual paramedics will likely play a role in whether the Liberals can win the confidence of the house. (Radio-Canada/Guy R. LeBlanc)

Ambulance delays and the thorny issue of bilingual paramedics are emerging as a key factor in who will get to lead a minority provincial government.

People's Alliance Leader Kris Austin said Thursday his party could support a Liberal throne speech if it promises quick action on the issue.

"What we would like to see is the paramedic crisis resolved," he said. "That's the big one for us. Beyond that, we can talk about tax reform, we can talk about the auditor-general receiving more funding. There's lots of things we campaigned on that we'd like to see."

Austin and the other two People's Alliance MLAs could be vital to the survival of Premier Brian Gallant's Liberal government and would also be key to the Progressive Conservatives holding power if they get a chance to govern.

Gallant won 21 seats in last month's election, one fewer than the 22 for the Progressive Conservatives.

But the Liberal premier said he plans to try to stay in power by winning confidence votes in the legislature with the Green Party's three MLAs.

Premier Brian Gallant needs four non-Liberal votes to secure a confidence vote. (James West/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

That support would only get Gallant to 24 votes, one short of a majority.

The legislature will sit Oct. 23, with a vote on the Liberal throne speech — the first test of confidence in the government — likely on Nov. 2.

If Austin's Alliance caucus votes to support the speech, or even abstains from voting against it, the Liberals would be able to cling to power in the short term.

Gallant said Thursday afternoon that the election results make it clear New Brunswickers want more action on ambulance delays, so his throne speech will "include a commitment to take concrete action to strengthen ambulance services and address the shortage of paramedics."

Greens want inquiry

The Alliance leader is not the only one pitching quick action on the ambulance delays. Green Leader David Coon is proposing a commission of inquiry into the issue but said there should be no change to the guarantee of equal service in English and French.

Austin said he wouldn't necessarily oppose an inquiry but he doesn't think it's needed.

People's Alliance Leader Kris Austin said he could support a Liberal throne speech if it promises quick action on the issue of ambulance delays. (CBC)

"I think you can figure out pretty quick where the problems lie," he said. "I think the problem needs to be fixed. I'm not opposed to an inquiry, but I'm opposed to delays. We need to get this done."

The Alliance leader has blamed bilingual hiring requirements at Ambulance New Brunswick for the fact many positions are vacant and said that is to blame for delays.

I don't like to think in today's society in New Brunswick that anyone is anti-bilingualism, because that's not going to help our province move forward.- PC Leader Blaine Higgs

PC Leader Blaine Higgs has proposed hiring qualified unilingual paramedics in the short term to address the shortages, and then giving them second-language training after the fact.

Higgs said Thursday because that promise was already in his campaign platform, he'd be willing to address it in a PC throne speech if the Liberals are defeated and he gets to form a government.

"That's not a new item for us," he said. "It happens to be a common one. So yes, we'll be looking to have that as part of a platform anyway, to have it included that we want ambulances back on the road."

Asked if his promised actions would include changes to the bilingual hiring requirement, Gallant said the Liberal response would be "within the legal framework that we have as a province."

Class action lawsuit

The issue flared up again this week after a local committee in Saint-Quentin said it was considering a class action lawsuit because of repeated delays in ambulance responses in the village.

The latest case was last Friday, when local residents drove a cyclist injured in a collision with a car to the hospital after waiting 40 minutes for an ambulance to arrive.

In 2017, Ambulance New Brunswick and the province acknowledged they had violated the constitutional language rights of a Moncton-area patient who did not receive ambulance service in French.

Ambulance New Brunswick has been under fire for delays and staff shortages. (Catherine Allard/Radio-Canada)

They agreed to a binding consent order in which they promised to "immediately put in place concrete measures," including extra funding, to ensure service "of equal quality" in both languages "uniformly across the entire territory of the province."

Earlier this year, a labour arbitrator ruled that the province should relax the bilingual requirement in areas of the province where there's less demand for second-language service to comply with seniority rules in staffing.

The Liberal government asked the courts to review that decision because it contradicts the legal requirements in the court order.

Higgs has not said how he would get around the court order if he relaxed the hiring requirements.

PC Leader Blaine Higgs says that if he takes power, he will gather all the stakeholders and find a solution to the ambulance service delivery problems. (CBC)

Coon has said his party will not vote for anything that would take away existing language rights.

Higgs said Thursday that bilingual hiring requirements are likely "part of" the problem at Ambulance New Brunswick but not the entire issue. He said if he becomes premier, he'll put all the players in a room together to find a solution.

The PC leader said the province needs to move past debating official bilingualism and he didn't want to think the Alliance was against it.

"I don't like to think in today's society in New Brunswick that anyone is anti-bilingualism, because that's not going to help our province move forward," he said.

"Bilingualism is a fabric of our province and it's here to stay, so people shouldn't debate that. And I won't be debating that. … Let's not spend time debating what is already part of our fabric, part of our Constitution, part of what makes our province special."

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.