New Brunswick·Analysis

Former Higgs cabinet ministers level tough questions at government

They’re not exactly rebels, but a trio of backbench Progressive Conservative MLAs have been flexing their independence at the legislature’s public accounts committee and turning its livestream into must-see political TV.

Three former cabinet ministers take aggressive approach at public accounts committee

Public accounts committee meetings have included tough questions for government from three former Higgs cabinet ministers. (Karissa Donkin/CBC)

They're not exactly rebels, but a trio of backbench Progressive Conservative MLAs have been flexing their independence at the legislature's Public Accounts committee and turning its livestream into must-see political TV.

Last week the three Tories, all former ministers dumped from the PC cabinet last fall, put the spotlight on school construction decisions, slow ambulance response times and unspent climate funds.

All three exchanges were compelling, and all three topics are potentially uncomfortable or awkward for the PC government.

"The goal is not to be quiet and go and hide when you're in government," says one of the MLAs, Jake Stewart, who represents Southwest Miramichi-Bay du Vin. "The goal is to work on behalf of constituents."

Stewart asked Auditor General Kim Adair-MacPherson about her recent conclusion that the Ambulance New Brunswick contract favours urban areas because missed response targets in rural areas get less weight in the calculations.

Stewart's hometown of Blackville was one of the affected communities and he said during the meeting he wants the contract changed.

Jake Stewart was minister of Aboriginal affairs before being shuffled out of cabinet after the last election. (Jacques Poitras/CBC)

"That issue is extremely important where I live," Stewart told CBC News. "I don't think it would be possible for me to be there on that committee and not ask those questions."

New Maryland-Sunbury MLA Jeff Carr kicked off the pot-stirring last week when he endorsed Adair-MacPherson's finding that the construction of a new school in the riding of Education Minister Dominic Cardy was not based on evidence.

"I think we have to pay attention to what you offer us and try to make the changes for everybody involved," Carr told her. 

He added that an upgrade to Oromocto High School, which serves his riding, was "pushed way over to the side" when the Hanwell school was able to "jump the queue."

Stewart followed up later the same day with his comments on Ambulance New Brunswick.

Andrea Anderson-Mason and Jeff Carr were also shuffled out of cabinet last fall. This photo was taken on the day the cabinet changes were announced. (Jacques Poitras/CBC)

"Ambulance coverage is human life. It's life and death," he told Adair-MacPherson.

"The need for a new contract is evident, because we can't allow rural areas of the province to suffer. … That's not acceptable to any taxpayer or any citizen of New Brunswick." 

The next day, Fundy-The Isles-Saint John West MLA Andrea Anderson-Mason used courtroom-style cross-examination questioning to reveal that almost $4 million in carbon tax revenue wasn't spent on climate change projects as required in 2018-19. 

"There's always a risk in terms of not spending the full budget," deputy environment minister Cade Libby acknowledged after a series of rapid-fire questions from the former attorney general.

The three episodes caught the attention of the opposition Liberals.

"Normally that doesn't happen," said Victoria-La Vallée MLA Chuck Chiasson, a veteran of the public accounts committee."Quite honestly, it took me off guard.

"I actually texted one of the other [Liberal] people on the committee … and I said 'Are you giving them these questions?' I thought, 'Gee, those are the questions we need to be asking."

Carr and Anderson-Mason did not respond to interview requests.

Stewart's approach 'nothing new'

Stewart says he wasn't looking for an "aha moment" and his approach was nothing new.

"I think I've always been fairly independent," he says. "I've been accused of it, or guilty of it, for a number of years."

He said backbench MLAs like him can "scream at the top of your lungs," or they can use the committee system to work "in a professional and precise way" raising issues important to their constituencies.

"Public accounts does provide a significant forum to drill down on the issues that really matter," he says. 

All three MLAs were cabinet ministers in Premier Blaine Higgs's minority government. But when the PCs won a majority last September, Higgs shuffled them out in favour of newcomers. 

Stewart was Aboriginal affairs minister before the shuffle and supported calls for an inquiry into systemic racism, putting him at odds with Higgs.

After her demotion, Anderson-Mason complained about the slow pace of government action on broadband internet in her riding, which Higgs labelled "sour grapes."

Jamie Gillies, political scientist at St. Thomas University, says MLAs outside cabinet are a little freer to work for their constituents. (CBC)

Chiasson said last week's questions may reflect "a little bit of frustration, a little bit of division" within the PC caucus, but political scientist Jamie Gillies of St. Thomas University says not to read too much into it.

"I don't think I would describe it as even dissent in the caucus or a revolt, but I think what we're seeing is maybe a little bit of an evolution since the election," he says.

"They're feeling a little more comfortable to say, 'You know, we're not down a couple of seats here. We've got a majority and I don't like how this is being treated within caucus,' or 'I agree with the auditor general on this.'"

The Health Department says it continues to discuss a new ambulance contract with Medavie Health Services New Brunswick, which operates the service.

PAC is supposed to be non-political or non-partisan, but I've never seen it function that way, so yeah, they can bring on more.- Chuck Chiasson, Liberal MLA

"These discussions are ongoing and no decisions have been made," said spokesperson Bruce Macfarlane.

Education officials also appeared at the committee last week and explained the school ranking formula needed changes to account for rapid population growth in Fredericton and Moncton. That led to the approval of the Hanwell school, they said.

Libby told Anderson-Mason that while the provincial carbon tax deposited $37.4 million in the climate fund in 2018-19 for projects, the government only spent $33.7 million of it. 

It was the first public acknowledgement that $3.7 million wasn't spent the way it was supposed to be spent. Libby said the department hoped the money would be rolled over to be used in 2019-20, but it turned out that would violate federal climate plan requirements.

"The government has committed to spending this particular budget on climate change initiatives," he said.

Non-partisan intent

Gillies says PC MLAs acting more independently "could become a problem if it gets a little bit out of control," but it's normal members no longer in cabinet will become more vocal advocates for their ridings. 

School upgrades and construction are "a good thing to raise if you're looking to get re-elected and you want to voice the concerns of your constituents," he says.

With a minority government, "there's always the pressing issue of whether we can keep the government going," but now that the PCs have a majority, "they can be a little more aggressive in advocating for things."

Chiasson says he hopes for more tough questioning from the three PC MLAs.

"It's always good to see. PAC is supposed to be non-political or non-partisan, but I've never seen it function that way, so yeah, they can bring on more." 

 

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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