New Brunswick

Green MLAs hit with 'social media storm' following vaccination bill abstentions

Two Green Party MLAs who chose not to vote on a contentious vaccination bill last week are defending the decision to abstain in the face of what one calls “a social media storm.”

Controversial Bill 11 defeated 22-20 after 3 Green MLAs abstain from vote

From left, Green Party MLA Kevin Arseneau, party leader David Coon and MLA Megan Mitton, pictured at the New Brunswick legislature, all abstained from voting on the controversial mandatory vaccination bill. (Jacques Poitras/CBC)

Two Green Party MLAs who chose not to vote on a contentious vaccination bill last week are defending the decision to abstain in the face of what one calls "a social media storm."

Kevin Arseneau and Megan Mitton say they've heard the condemnation from across the political spectrum that they should not have sat out the vote.

But they both say they would do it again.

"I've been thinking a lot over the last few days about if there was a better path to take, but I didn't want to align with anti-vaxxers and I still didn't think this was good policy," says Mitton, the MLA for Memramcook-Tantramar.

"So it was 'hold my nose and vote yes for legislation that I didn't think was good?' I don't think we should do that type of thing either. We should go back and make better policy." 

Arseneau, the MLA for Kent North, said he hasn't been swayed by the criticism either. "Even with all the reaction and everything … I'd do it again tomorrow in the House," he said.

Both Kevin Arseneau, pictured, and Megan Mitton said they would still abstain if the vote was held again. (Radio-Canada)

The bill was defeated 22-20. If all three Green MLAs had voted yes, it would have passed.

Green Leader David Coon explained his decision last Thursday, but his two colleagues had not spoken publicly about why they didn't vote either way.

'You hid'

Progressive Conservative Education Minister Dominic Cardy slammed the abstentions last week, saying the Green MLAs were afraid of "extremists in your base. … Legislators are elected to legislate. You hid."

Liberal Leader Kevin Vickers called it "a complete abdication of duty by the Green party."

Education Minister Dominic Cardy said the goal of the bill was to immunize enough children to create herd immunity so that the small number of children who can't be vaccinated for medical reasons would still be protected from an outbreak. (Ed Hunter/CBC)

Even retired NDP leader Elizabeth Weir, who rarely comments on current provincial issues, said on Twitter she was "so disappointed" with the Greens. She never abstained during 14 years as an MLA, she added. "I took my lumps."

There was also scathing criticism from the public on social media and in comments on news coverage.

Mitton and Arseneau reject Cardy's accusation they were responding to anti-vaccination sentiment among Green supporters. 

"If I wanted to please them, I would not have come out and said we need to be working on a new, better, improved bill," Arseneau said.

The only other MLA who abstained on the vote was PC Agriculture, Aquaculture and Fisheries Minister Ross Wetmore. He refused to discuss his abstention.

"Where the bill has already been decided upon, I have no further comment," he said in an email to CBC News.

The bill would have eliminated religious and philosophical exemptions to the mandatory vaccination policy requirement for school children. Unvaccinated kids without valid medical reasons would not have been allowed to go to school starting in September 2021. 

Mitton and Arseneau, both elected for the first time in 2018, say while they supported the idea of the bill, Cardy didn't have complete data on vaccination rates and couldn't demonstrate such a strict measure was needed now.

"There's a bunch of steps that public health experts say should be taken before you get to an extreme measure like excluding children from accessing education," Mitton said.

"I do think that this is a tool that could be in the toolbox to be used in the event that it is needed. The evidence was not provided that it is needed right now." 

Herd-immunity threshold

Cardy's numbers showed about one per cent of the school population is not vaccinated. But he said with a three per cent vaccination failure rate, the numbers were getting close to falling below the 95 per cent coverage rate needed for herd immunity.

That refers to enough vaccinations to allow a population to avoid infections and protect those who can't be immunized for legitimate medical reasons.

If the bill had passed, children not vaccinated for any reason other than health concerns would not have been allowed to go to public schools starting in the fall of 2021. (Paul Vernon/The Associated Press)

Cardy predicted that with anti-vaccination sentiment and misinformation spreading, a tougher policy was needed.

Arseneau said if the rate falls under the herd-immunity threshold, "then absolutely that is what should set off mandatory vaccination." 

But he said it should be a last resort, because children barred from attending public schools won't benefit from learning about how to understand data and how to use the scientific method.

The Greens tried to amend the bill last week to give the chief medical officer of health the power to declare the bill in effect when the rate fell below the threshold. But the amendment was defeated.

Arseneau said while he had planned to vote for the bill originally, "my abstention was an invitation to continue working on getting our vaccination numbers up [and] making good vaccination policy." 

It's not anti-vaxx vs. pro-science, says Mitton

Mitton, who said she and her children are all vaccinated, said many public health officials, including British Columbia's chief medical officer Dr. Bonnie Henry, have suggested stricter mandatory vaccination policies are not the way to go. 

"This shouldn't have been anti-science, anti-vaxx versus pro-science, pro-vaccine, but that's the way it's been framed," Mitton said. "So I couldn't support the bill as it stood, but I also didn't want to align myself with anti-vaxxers." 

Green MLA Megan Mitton pointed to public health experts who say stricter mandatory vaccination may not be the best policy option for immunizing school children. (CBC)

Both MLAs say they've been criticized by supporters of the bill but also by anti-vaccination activists who wanted them to vote against it.

"It has been a bit of a social media storm," Mitton said.

"Some people said [abstaining] was the easy choice," Arseneau said. "Politically this was the worse position we could have ever took, because it's right in the middle of a polarized debate. You have people who feel so strongly about it and so strongly against it."

Mitton and Arseneau both say once they explain the complexity of the issue to their constituents, they understand better why they abstained.

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