New Brunswick

MLAs who voted 'No' on Cardy's vaccination bill ponder whether it's time to say 'Yes'

Education Minister Dominic Cardy says he may revive his effort to tighten vaccination rules for school children, but it’s not clear if he’d win any more support than he did last year.

Liberal MLAs who rejected bill say it's too early to decide if they'll switch their vote

Education Minister Dominic Cardy says it's not clear if he'd win any more support for stricter vaccination rules for school children than he did last year. (CBC)

Education Minister Dominic Cardy says he may revive his effort to tighten vaccination rules for school children, but it's not clear if he'd win any more support than he did last year.

Cardy's bill, to eliminate some exemptions from the mandatory vaccination policy for school children, was defeated 22-20 in a free vote in the legislature in June 2020.

To succeed now, he'd have to change the minds of at least some of the 14 MLAs who voted no last year who are still in the legislature.

"I'll have to get back to you on that one," said Environment and Climate Change Minister Gary Crossman, one of the 'No' votes, when asked whether he'd switch.

Liberal MLA Francine Landry says it's too early to say if she'd change her vote in the case of bill revival. (CBC)

Natural Resources and Energy Minister Mike Holland said he'd "consider" switching to a yes vote if a new bill addressed some of his concerns from last year.

Liberal MLA Francine Landry said it was too early to say if she'd change her vote. 

"It's a hypothetical question so I won't answer that, because we don't know what the bill will look like," she said.

A spokesperson for the Liberal caucus said all of its MLAs share that position.

CBC News asked staffers for the four party caucuses at the legislature to survey all of their MLAs who voted no or abstained last year on whether they might now vote yes.

Cardy's bill would have eliminated religious and philosophical exemptions from a provincial policy that requires students to be vaccinated against several diseases.

Only medical exemptions would have been allowed. 

When the bill was defeated, Cardy accused MLAs who voted no of succumbing to pressure from anti-vaccination activists who dominated a week of hearings into the legislation in 2019.

Will COVID-19 change things?

Now with the more contagious delta variant leading to a record number of cases of COVID-19, including in many schools, Cardy says many New Brunswickers want him to try again in the upcoming session of the legislature opening Nov. 2.

"Every day I hear the voices of people in different parts of the province saying they want this new level of protection re-introduced to protect our kids," he said.

"I hope we can have this conversation in the coming weeks because it's a little bizarre to say we'll protect our elderly, we'll protect professionals, but we won't offer the same level of protection to our kids." 

The day the bill was defeated in June 2020, there were 27 active cases of COVID-19 in the province. On Thursday, there were 574. 

Green Leader David Coon did not rule out supporting a new version of Dominic Cardy's vaccination bill. (Shane Magee/CBC)

The minister wouldn't say directly whether he has spoken to MLAs who voted no last year to lobby them to vote yes now.

"I've heard lots of people from all different parties who wish they'd seen that bill get passed into law last year," he said. "I've talked to lots of people all the time about that and other things."

A spokesperson for Premier Blaine Higgs said no decision has been made on a new bill. "To comment further would be speculative," Nicolle Carlin said.

A spokesperson for People's Alliance Leader Kris Austin and MLA Michelle Conroy said that they are "open-minded" but couldn't comment on how they'd vote before seeing the wording of any bill.

Progressive Conservative MLAs Jeff Carr and Andrea Anderson-Mason, who voted no last year, did not respond. Neither did PC MLA Ross Wetmore, who abstained.

The Green abstention

All three Green MLAs abstained last year. Kevin Arseneau was not reachable this week, a spokesperson said. Green MLA Megan Mitton says she'd support a bill on mandatory vaccination for eligible students.

Green Leader David Coon said last year's legislation was "a very political bill to serve Dominic Cardy's own personal agenda" but did not rule out supporting a new version.

"Let's see what he comes up with," Coon said. "We need legislation to ensure that all students who can be vaccinated for COVID-19 get vaccinated, with no exemptions other than medical. So the bill has to achieve that."

Coon said he abstained because he wanted Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Jennifer Russell, and not the government, making the call on when to require vaccinations. But MLAs defeated his amendment to add that to Cardy's bill.

"We essentially protested that" by abstaining, he said.

Natural Resources and Energy Development Minister Mike Holland was among several PC MLAs who said they voted against the bill because of a lack of complete data available on existing vaccination rates. (Jacques Poitras/CBC)

Complicating the issue of a mandatory vaccination policy for school children is that COVID-19 vaccines have been approved only for children aged 12 and up.

The existing law only requires proof of vaccination when a child enrols in school for the first time. In most cases that's when they're entering kindergarten, too young for a COVID-19 vaccine. 

Cardy's bill would have changed that to require proof of vaccination to attend school.

COVID-19 vaccines would also have to be added to the province's Routine Immunization Schedule, a list of required vaccines. 

Holland was among several PC MLAs who said they voted against the bill because there weren't complete data available from all seven school districts on existing vaccination rates.

That made it hard to assess Cardy's argument that stricter rules were needed to get those rates up, he said.

"I didn't feel I had the full scope of information to form a vote in favour of the bill. ...

"In the event that a bill comes forward and it would have the requirements that I was looking that were absent the last time, I would consider supporting it, yes." 

How MLAs voted

Here are the MLAs who voted against the bill in June 2020 or abstained who are still in the legislature.

Progressive Conservatives:

Gary Crossman, Mike Holland, Jeff Carr, Andrea Anderson-Mason.

Liberals:

Guy Arseneault, Denis Landry, Roger Melanson, Francine Landry, Gilles LePage, Chuck Chiasson, Benoît Bourque, Robert Gauvin

People's Alliance: 

Kris Austin, Michelle Conroy

MLAs who abstained on the bill who are still in the legislature:

Progressive Conservatives:

Ross Wetmore

Greens:

David Coon, Megan Mitton, Kevin Arseneau

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.

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