New Brunswick·Analysis

3 election-triggering scenarios to watch in coming months

New Brunswickers managed to avoid an early provincial election in 2019, but a date with the ballot box may become harder to avoid in 2020.

Essential-services bill, March budget and byelections all have potential to topple government

Looming house votes and byelections pose a threat to topple the Blaine Higgs Progressive Conservative government. But the premier says he's fine putting his job on the line to advance his agenda. (CBC)

New Brunswickers managed to avoid an early provincial election in 2019, but a date with the ballot box may become harder to avoid in 2020.

Progressive Conservative Premier Blaine Higgs took office without a majority, but with an informal, 18-month deal with the People's Alliance providing him a razor-thin margin to pass legislation and stay in power. 

Now, more than a year later, there are at least three potential election triggers on the horizon in the coming months.

Higgs has routinely warned his opponents that he's perfectly happy to hit the campaign trail — and put his job on the line — if that's what it takes to advance his agenda. 

"I didn't come here to stay here," he said recently.

"I came here to get a job done." 

What's less clear is how badly the opposition Liberals, behind in the polls, want an election. 

"Given it's only been a year since the last election, I think we have to do our best to collaborate to ensure that the government functions," Liberal Leader Kevin Vickers said in November.

Last week though, Liberal MLA Gilles LePage, the party's point man in the debate over an essential-services bill, was more bullish.

"We're always ready to go into an election," he said.

"We're always ready to defend our position and our Liberal values." 

As 2019 winds down, here are the three possible scenarios that could send New Brunswickers back to the polls sooner rather than later.

First chance: this week 

Last week, Higgs said he would consider the essential-services bill a confidence vote. So a PC defeat, or even the passing of an amendment gutting key provisions, would trigger an election. 

The bill lays out a new process for deciding which nursing-home workers would be deemed essential during a strike, something that must be in place by Jan. 2.

Premier Blaine Higgs says he will consider the essential-services bill a confidence vote. The bill lays out a new process for deciding which nursing-home workers would be deemed essential during a strike. (Hadeel Ibrahim/CBC)

It would also force a labour arbitrator to consider the government's "ability to pay" in awarding wage increases.

Higgs says he won't accept watering down that element, even though it goes against the position adopted by all Liberal and Green MLAs, and two Alliance MLAs, in a symbolic vote in May. 

An Alliance vote against the PC bill, or for weakening the "ability to pay" provision, now seems unlikely.

Higgs said Friday his government will introduce its own amendment to make the bill easier for the Alliance to swallow. 

Austin said the PC amendment will allow an arbitrator look at "other relevant factors" as a way of balancing the "ability to pay" provision. 

"Minority governments are about give-and-take," he said Friday.

"I think at the end of next week, things will work out."

That suggests the Tories are unlikely to fall this week and won't be forced into a January election.

Second chance: March budget

The next major confidence test for the government will be the provincial budget, which will be introduced on a Tuesday in March and which MLAs will vote on about 10 days later. 

It will incorporate what Higgs said will be major reforms to the health-care system, including attempts to address labour shortages.

"We plan to move forward with that in the new year … commencing in the first quarter of the new year," he said last month. 

People's Alliance Kris Austin described minority governments as about the 'give-and-take' when discussing the future of the essential-services bill. (Radio-Canada)

If that includes cuts to services, it might provoke enough voter anger for the Alliance to vote against it and bring down the government.

"It's hard to say until I really see for myself what they're planning on doing," Austin said Monday.

Third chance: byelections

Should the budget be less contentious, or should the Alliance stick with the PCs despite controversial cuts, the next potential trigger could be a pair of provincial byelections.

Higgs must set the date for a vote in the riding of St. Croix around March 10, six months after the seat became vacant.

He can wait a while longer to set the date for another byelection in Shediac Bay-Dieppe but has said he'll probably call them for the same day.

In St. Croix, the Alliance is running Rod Cumberland, a former government biologist who was fired from the Maritime College of Forest Technology earlier this year. A former colleague said he believed Cumberland was fired over his opposition to glyphosate spraying. 

"We're throwing everything we've got into that one," Austin said. 

Even if Cumberland doesn't win, his high profile could split the vote with the PCs and give the Liberals a chance to win the seat.

Rod Cumberland, fired from the Maritime College of Forest Technology in June, is running for the People's Alliance in the St. Croix by-election. (CBC)

If that happened — and the Liberals held onto Shediac Bay-Dieppe — they'd suddenly have 22 seats, to 21 for the Tories, allowing the Liberals to team up with three Green MLAs to control the legislature. 

Higgs would then face a choice between trying to govern or simply calling an election in the hope voters will endorse his decisions.

If the byelections don't change the dynamic in the house, however, the PCs should be able to carry on into the fall. The Alliance has even left the door open to extending their 18-month commitment of support.

That would take the Tories at least to next fall, when they'll mark two years in power and present a third throne speech — and when the cycle of election-trigger speculation will start again. 

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