How Friday's virus-accelerated budget may reshape the province's politics
Friday's all-party agreement to speed up a vote on the provincial budget was, as People's Alliance leader Kris Austin said, "a historic moment."
But the rare example of breathtakingly quick cross-partisan cooperation did not leave all parties and leaders on the same footing.
The budget passed, an election was avoided and political considerations are fading fast as New Brunswick mobilizes to slow the spread of COVID-19.
Still, the uniqueness of Friday's events, and how they upended the dynamic in the legislature, bear a second look.
A month ago, the Progressive Conservative government of Premier Blaine Higgs was staring into the abyss.
The government had unveiled, then cancelled, health reforms including the nighttime closure of emergency departments in six small hospitals. Protests and rallies began even before the official announcement Feb. 11.
Despite Higgs's retreat five days later, the opposition Liberals felt they'd been handed a winning issue for a spring election.
They would try to vote down the provincial budget and base their campaign around the risk of the reforms coming back in the future. They'd need to pick up only a handful of seats to win power and maybe even a majority.
Four weeks later, the PC budget sailed through a series of procedural steps in less than 18 minutes, winning approval on a 24-0 vote.
Higgs finds himself securely in office at least until the fall, free to focus on the one job that matters, managing the coronavirus. No one would ever wish for such a circumstance, but the result is that he gets to look like a leader.
"We will deal with this situation and maintain and control it in a way that we can manage it and keep people safe," he said last week. "That's my goal."
"And we need everyone on deck to help with that. It's not an individual effort by me alone. … It's everybody doing a little bit extra."
Cardy: polarizing strategy
A week ago Education Minister Dominic Cardy was criticized on social media after declaring that students who had travelled internationally during March Break would have to stay home for 14 days.
The criticism didn't age well as the COVID-19 situation grew increasingly dire and cases began showing up in New Brunswick.
But Cardy's aggressive style, particularly on social media, sparked more reaction late in the week when he responded to parents on Twitter that full school closures were "very likely" soon and he was "fighting hard" to make them happen.
Then a whole day went by without any such announcement. Opposition parties said the government wasn't speaking with one voice.
Cardy was "making the job of public health officials even more difficult," said Liberal MLA Lisa Harris, urging Higgs to stop the minister from tweeting.
"The only person we want to hear from on what happens in respect to the coronavirus outbreak is the chief medical officer of health or her deputy," said Green leader David Coon.
In a combative scrum with reporters Friday, Cardy insisted several times the school closure decision was up to Dr. Jennifer Russell, not him.
Though his tweets made it clear he wanted it to happen and was willing to push hard for it in public, Cardy insisted he was simply being open.
"In a democracy, in a time crisis, leaving the doors of communication between the government and the public open is essential," he said. "I'm not going to stop doing that and I'm not going to apologize.
"This is the first time the human race has gone through a pandemic in the age of social media, and augmenting the quantity and quality of communications from government, as long as it's clear and on-message, is an important part of reassuring people."
But things did not become "clear and on-message" for several more hours. Late in the afternoon, Russell told reporters it was actually the government's decision, not hers, and she would support their decision.
Only later that evening did Higgs confirm the school closures, finally ending a day of confusion for parents. Cardy's style won him applause from some parents online, but criticism from others.
Vickers gives in
As late as Wednesday, the Liberals were insisting that the budget vote scheduled for March 20 was "a separate issue" from the COVID-19 situation.
Over the next 48 hours, the party's position changed several times--though, as leader Kevin Vickers pointed out, so did the reality of the coronavirus.
Finance critic Roger Melanson said Thursday morning the party would heed Russell's advice on whether a provincial election, complete with large crowds at rallies and dozens of voters gathering at polling stations, was a good idea.
"If that means we need to make decisions or changes, we'll listen," he said.
That was the first crack in the Liberal resolve. An hour later, on the CBC political panel, another appeared: Melanson floated the idea of the government postponing the budget vote past March 20. Finance Minister Ernie Steeves shot that down immediately.
In a press release late in the day, Vickers repeated the suggestion of postponing the vote. But the next morning, in Question Period, not a single Liberal raised the idea.
Instead, the Liberals agreed during two hours of negotiations with the other parties to grant the PCs the power to push through the budget vote that very day.
"We obviously realized and want to assure New Brunswickers that their health and safety are the priority today," Vickers told reporters. "Given the situation across the country, across the world, this is not the time to have an election."
Coon had already announced he would not vote against the budget, so its eventual passage was becoming a foregone conclusion.
Even so, the high-speed budget timetable required the unanimous consent of all parties and the Liberals granted it, without seeking any concessions from Higgs in return.
Coon with leverage
Coon, meanwhile, transformed himself into what he has said he could be all along: someone Higgs could work with.
In a December interview, the premier said he wasn't cooperating with Coon as much as with the People's Alliance because Coon was "narrowly focused" ideologically and had an "all or nothing" approach.
That obstacle seemed to evaporate after Robert Gauvin resigned from the PC cabinet and caucus, changing the math in the legislature.
Suddenly even the usual combination of PC and Alliance votes weren't enough to guarantee passage of the budget.
"The balance of power has shifted in this legislature toward the Green caucus," Coon declared on budget day.
On Friday, Coon said he had used that leverage to extract a promise from Higgs: that the most contentious part of the health reforms would never be revived.
"I want to set the record straight. There will be emergency services 24/7 in these hospitals," the premier said after the 18-minute blitz of votes. He also offered that assurance to the Green caucus directly, in a private meeting.
For Coon's supporters, who might not be comfortable with making life easier for a fiscally conservative government, the Green leader declared that the budget delivered four days earlier was outdated, and that its $92.4 million surplus would be used to fight COVID-19.
"The details of it are no longer particularly relevant," he said.
"What we have done today is to ensure that the additional money that was budgeted for in this new budget, including the money that's in the surplus, is available for the priority use in health and other places in government to help deal with the crisis. ...
"That's why no one voted against this budget."
The rapid dénouement of the budget battle, and Coon's conciliatory approach, has fed a growing divide between the Liberals and Greens, two parties that have opposed most PC initiatives and have cooperated on many issues.
One Liberal MLA, Isabelle Thériault of Caraquet, whose local hospital was in the list for nighttime closures, took to Facebook to explain the Liberals abstained to avoid an election.
A campaign in the midst of the outbreak "would have been total chaos," she wrote.
But given Coon's decision and the standings in the legislature, some Liberals could have cast symbolic votes against the budget without that risk.
Thériault also labelled the Green leader a "Coonservateur" in her weekend Facebook message and said Higgs's ER promise was due to citizen protests and Robert Gauvin's resignation, not Coon's vote.
The Green willingness to cooperate with Higgs is limited: on Twitter, Kent North MLA Kevin Arseneau played bad cop to Coon's good cop, saying he still wanted to bring down the PCs eventually.
But the budget vote moved Coon a little farther from the Liberals and a little closer to Higgs, something hard to imagine just weeks ago.
Political jockeying is the farthest thing from most New Brunswickers' minds this week, but the head-spinning turn–of–events on Friday gives Higgs a clear advantage in the short term.