New Brunswick

Higgs dares opposition to force election over nursing home workers

One day after his government lost a symbolic vote in the legislature over stalled contract talks with nursing-home workers, Premier Blaine Higgs is daring opposition parties to force an election over the issue.

Premier said he won't heed a motion calling on the government to enter into binding arbitration with CUPE

Premier Blaine Higgs said he respected the motion passed by MLAs calling on his government to enter into binding arbitration with CUPE, but he said it would cost taxpayers too much money. (CBC)

One day after his government lost a symbolic vote in the legislature over stalled contract talks with nursing home workers, Premier Blaine Higgs is daring opposition parties to force an election over the issue.

In a heated Question Period, Higgs said he respected the motion passed by a majority of MLAs calling on his minority government to enter binding arbitration with the Canadian Union of Public Employees.

But he said he would not heed the motion because it would cost taxpayers too much money.

"You know what? If it means going to an election, we will do just that, Mr. Speaker, because we will stand our ground," Higgs said.

The premier later told reporters that he would not call an election on the issue but wasn't afraid to campaign on it if the three other parties in the house teamed up to bring down his government.

Hundreds of nursing home workers and supporters gathered at the New Brunswick Legislature Thursday afternoon. (Gabrielle Fahmy/CBC)

"If they want to do that, game on," he said.  "I won't go out and just call an election. But I want people to understand that I'm not afraid to win or lose an election. I will not allow decisions to be made that I know we cannot financially make work."

It's the first time since last year's campaign failed to produce a majority government that Higgs has tossed out the idea of a snap election.

It came after the Liberals, Greens and two People's Alliance MLAs joined forces Thursday to pass the motion on arbitration 25-21.

CUPE members working in non-profit nursing homes have been without a contract since 2016 and are embroiled in a legal battle with the province over whether they have the right to strike. The union has been asking for binding arbitration.

Opposition Liberal leader Denis Landry said Friday his party will introduce legislation next week that would go farther than the motion and legally force the government to move to arbitration.

Landry said Friday that an election call is up to Higgs, though the opposition parties could trigger one if they defeated the PCs in a confidence vote.

The two Alliance members said Friday they voted for the toothless motion Thursday because they felt the dispute has dragged on long enough and the Progressive Conservative government needs to make the union a better offer.

But both MLAs said they would not vote against the PCs if the government declared a future vote on the issue a confidence vote, because that would force an election.

"We've given our word and I don't believe New Brunswickers would want us to do that either," said Miramichi MLA Michelle Conroy. The Alliance promised last fall to vote to keep the Tories in power for 18 months by supporting them in budget and confidence votes.

CUPE members working in non-profit nursing homes have been without a contract since 2016 and are embroiled in a legal battle with the province over whether they have the right to strike. (Hadeel Ibrahim/CBC)

Higgs said earlier this spring he'd support binding arbitration as long as it included parameters to limit wage increases in light of the province's dire financial condition.

The premier says if he agrees to CUPE's wage demands for nursing home works, that will set a precedent for dozens of other contracts expiring in the next two years. "If we get into a pattern with this group, that's what it is," he said. "It's a pattern-setting moment."

He estimates that awarding all those unions the same wage increase that CUPE is asking for now would cost $500 million a year.

Green party leader David Coon said that Higgs's invocation of an early election "is just posturing."

"He's dug in on a contract negotiation, and it's silly to suggest that around a contract negotiation, he would precipitate or would like to an election precipitated. It doesn't make any sense at all," Coon said.

But a snap election would make political sense, according to the CBC's polling analyst Eric Grenier.

Several recent public opinion polls showing the Higgs PCs with a comfortable lead over the Liberals.

"The PCs have picked up support in the polls, largely at the expense of the People's Alliance," Grenier said. At the same time, the Liberals appear to have lost some support to the Greens.

"If an election were held today, the PCs would probably be able to win a majority government," he said.

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