Tories consult People's Alliance, leave Greens out in the cold
Higgs promised collaboration, but his only collaborator so far appears to be the People's Alliance
Premier Blaine Higgs's promise to co-operate with all parties in the New Brunswick legislature is evolving into a close relationship with the party that already agrees with him — and a decision to not consult the party that he considers "adversarial."
A week after the Progressive Conservative minority government was sworn in, Higgs clearly sees the People's Alliance as a de facto partner and the Green Party as a caucus he's not yet able to collaborate with.
"I'm here today in front of you because the Alliance party supported me to be here," Higgs told reporters Friday. "So you build on that, because that's why you're here. Then you work on the relationships that were more difficult."
His comments came after two very different accounts of PC outreach from the leaders of the Alliance and the Greens. Each party has three seats in the 49-member legislature.
"They've been very good with us so far in terms of negotiations and collaborating," People's Alliance Leader Kris Austin said this week. He said he and Higgs have had "several discussions on different policies, on things that we're both looking to accomplish."
But Green Party Leader David Coon said he's been shut out of such consultations and has not been asked for his input on the PC throne speech to be delivered next Tuesday.
Coon was also told he wasn't welcome at a briefing Higgs received from senior federal civil servants on Ottawa's carbon-tax plan.
"In early days, it's not shaping up to be such a co-operative and collaborative atmosphere," Coon said Thursday. "I hope I'm wrong."
Higgs promised to consult
Earlier this month, Higgs promised to consult all three other parties on "key items that are near and dear to your platform, or to your heart" and to include their MLAs in briefings on key issues.
Friday, Higgs explained his decision to not consult the Greens on his throne speech by saying "it just happens" that the PCs and the Alliance are aligned on the pressing issue of paramedic shortages.
But Austin said Thursday the co-operation went beyond a single issue.
"We've offered input and they've accepted input on a lot of our policies."
Austin invited to carbon tax briefing
Higgs confirmed that while Coon was excluded from the federal carbon tax briefing, Austin was invited because the Alliance agrees with the PC position on that as well.
He said Coon would have turned the briefing into a debate on the merits of the policy.
"I'm not looking to make every meeting adversarial," Higgs said.
"I didn't want to spend time arguing with officials. I wanted to spend time finding a formula going through that I would believe in, and that was more aligned, certainly, with the Alliance … because they don't believe in a carbon tax either."
He said he'll instead let Coon know what's in the PC carbon plan when it's finished.
"I'll want him to see that and we'll share that with him, what we're going forward with," he said.
Alliance support created 'momentum'
Higgs said Friday the Alliance's decision to vote with the PCs to defeat the Liberal throne speech, which allowed Higgs to become premier, generated "momentum" for co-operation between the two parties.
The day of the vote, Austin huddled with then-PC house leader Trevor Holder, whose job was to ensure Tory MLAs voted the proper way during the three-step process.
Higgs said it will take longer to achieve "momentum" for co-operation with the Greens, who voted with the Liberals.
"At some point we'll be there," he said. "We build relationships. The last few weeks haven't been easy .
"I recognize going forward that we have to find ways to work with all parties. I've said that. But it's a process that unfolds."
Other signs of co-operation
Meanwhile, other signs of PC-Alliance co-operation are plentiful.
Mike Holland, the new energy and resource development minister, responsible for the shale gas file, was spotted at the legislature Thursday chatting with Sterling Wright, Austin's chief of staff.
The new legislature seating plan also has the three Alliance members sitting on the government side of the house.
I certainly worry that we'll have the governing party sell their souls, for lack of a better term, to keep power. - Liberal Leader Brian Gallant
The Tories insist that's only because having three caucuses on the opposition side of the chamber would mean congestion and a shortage of space in adjacent anterooms.
Symbolically, though, the seating plan matches the growing co-operation between the two parties — which combined give Higgs the majority of votes in the house, 25, needed to pass legislation.
Gallant sees 'dangerous' influence
With the PC-Alliance co-operation solidifying, Opposition Liberal leader Brian Gallant has shifted his tone on co-operating with Austin's party.
When he was seeking their support to keep his minority government in power, Gallant said he respected the Alliance's voters and the issues that motivated them.
But he's now warning against giving its three MLAs too much influence.
"I certainly worry that we'll have the governing party sell their souls, for lack of a better term, to keep power," he said Thursday.
"Having any party with just 12 per cent of the votes — that's obviously still an accomplishment but just 12 per cent of the votes — holding the balance of power can be a dangerous place to be for a minority government."
No 'wish list'
Higgs said Friday it was easier to work with the Alliance because "it was very clear to me that David Coon and the Greens were focused on an item-by-item wish list."
"That's not the message in this throne speech. It's not the message I received from Kris Austin and the Alliance, because they weren't promoting or pushing for a wish list either."
He said that's why he didn't bother seeking Coon's ideas for next Tuesday's throne speech.
"That would have been a different discussion with Mr. Coon than it was or would have been with Mr. Austin."
Higgs was 'upset' by Green vote
Coon responded by saying Higgs was "upset" the Greens voted for the Liberal throne speech earlier this month, but that was no reason to exclude the party from promised consultations.
He also suggested it's shortsighted.
"There may be a time in the future when he comes looking for our support for a bill that's important to him. That's an important consideration for him."
Even so, he said it was too early to conclude that PC-Green co-operation was impossible.
"Once he gets over it, we'll be able to start working together," he said.
Coon said all leaders, including Higgs, have said that the election results show that parties have to work together.
"I know he heard that message and I'm waiting to work with him."