New Brunswick

3 new COVID-19 measures pass in 10 minutes, including protection for workers who must stay home

The New Brunswick legislature met for a quick 25-minute sitting Friday to adopt three new measures in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Also power to establish daycares for essential workers and suspended deadlines to file court actions

Only a handful of MLAs were in the house for Friday's short session. (CBC News)

The New Brunswick legislature met for a quick 25-minute sitting Friday to adopt three new measures in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Workers will now be protected from being fired for staying home if they're self-isolating or if they have to care for a sick family member.

The bill amends the Employment Standards Act, which already has protections for workers, but "none of them would directly apply to the unprecedented emergency situation we find ourselves in today," Labour Minister Trevor Holder told the house.

MLAs also voted to give the government the power to establish emergency child-care centres for children of essential workers who haven't been able to find other arrangements.

The province closed daycares last month as part its response to the pandemic but allowed some centres to operate for children of essential workers.

The law will let the province set up centres "in areas of need, when all other avenues have been exhausted," Public Safety Minister Carl Urquhart said.

The same bill, which amends the Emergency Measures Act, also suspends the deadlines for New Brunswickers filing court actions or complaints to provincial tribunals.

The deadlines will be suspended during the emergency and for 90 days after it ends.

All three measures had been approved by an all-party cabinet committee that includes Premier Blaine Higgs, key Progressive Conservative ministers and the leaders of the Liberal, Green and People's Alliance parties.

Government House Leader Glen Savoie thanked the party leaders for their collaboration. (Radio-Canada file photo)

MLAs gave unanimous consent to skip routine business such as Question Period and to allow first, second and third readings of the bills to happen the same day, without sending them to a committee for study and debate.

PC House Leader Glen Savoie thanked all parties for agreeing to the hasty timetable. 

"It behooves the public to know that New Brunswick is a leader as an entire province because of the collaboration of the leaders of all the parties," he said, thanking each of them in turn. 

"Without their leadership and without the work that they're doing, New Brunswick couldn't be a leader. … I think we're a model for the rest of the country to follow." 

I really believe we're kind of onto something with the non-partisan approach to building an economic recovery road map, and something that will stand the test of time.- Blaine Higgs, premier

The passage of the bills took less than 10 minutes. Lieutenant-Governor Brenda Murphy then arrived and gave royal assent.

Only a handful of MLAs were in the house and they sat in different seats to keep at least two metres apart from each other. House rules require a minimum of 14 members be in their seats to pass legislation.

Speaker Daniel Guitard said he hopes the legislature can return to normal functions soon. "I'd like to be able to see everyone here," he said.

Coon seeks return of Question Period, debate

Green Party Leader David Coon tweeted during the sitting that "hopefully this will be the last time we meet in such a limited capacity, without Question Period, debate and other routine proceedings.

"All leaders have agreed to discuss how to safely bring back the Legislature to normal functioning," he said.

Earlier this week Green MLA Kevin Arseneau tweeted that Question Period should take place and that he wishes "democracy be deemed an essential service."

But Arseneau was not in the house Friday to deny unanimous consent for skipping Question Period.

Green Party MLA Kevin Arseneau in a temporary constituency office near his Rogersville-area farm. He has expressed concern about skipping Question Period in the legislature. (Kevin Arseneau)

Coon told reporters that the legislative administration committee, made up of MLAs from all parties, has been asked to come up with proposals by early May "to reinstate a more or less fully functioning legislature" with proceedings in person, online or in a combination of the two.

He also said he expects the all-party cabinet committee he's part of will no longer operate after the first wave of COVID-19 has passed and New Brunswick can "get back into society in some fashion."

He said that, and the likelihood that opinions of political parties about pandemic responses will increasingly diverge as time goes on, is another reason the legislature needs to function again.

But Premier Blaine Higgs said while it's necessary to "get democracy back in action," normal sitting days should only resume when it makes sense under Public Health guidelines.

He said he'd like to see the all-party committee continue its non-partisan work so the government can come up with a durable approach to rebuilding the economy.

"I really believe we're kind of onto something with the non-partisan approach to building an economic recovery road map, and something that will stand the test of time."

Too soon for full sitting

People's Alliance Leader Kris Austin said it's too soon to think about having a fuller complement of MLAs sitting.

"We're telling people to stay home and to only go out when it's essential … and then on the other hand we're going to go into the legislature and spend hours on end debating issues that may not be that relevant to the state of emergency?"

He said the all-party committee, which is now sitting twice a week and does not meet publicly, is "not the ideal" but it's the best way to raise issues at the moment.

Liberal MLA Rob McKee said it's "premature to think we can get back to normal orders of the day" and it's not a priority until things start to get back to normal.

No change in fines

The government had considered legislation to increase the fines for people violating physical distancing rules under the COVID-19 emergency order.

But Higgs said earlier this week that "the recent case numbers would indicate this may not be necessary" and no such bill was introduced. The current range for fines is $240 to $10,200.

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