New Brunswick

Higgs willing to bring on election over nursing home bill

Premier Blaine Higgs is threatening to trigger a winter election if his legislation on essential services in nursing homes isn't passed ahead of a court-imposed Jan. 2 deadline. 

Premier calls bill dealing with essential services a 'line in the sand' for government

Premier Blaine Higgs says he'll declare a nursing home bill now before the legislature a confidence vote. (Jacques Poitras/CBC)

Premier Blaine Higgs is threatening to trigger a winter election if his legislation on essential services in nursing homes isn't passed ahead of a court-imposed Jan. 2 deadline. 

Higgs said Thursday that he will declare the bill a confidence vote, meaning its defeat would lead him to visit the lieutenant-governor to set a day for an election, likely sometime in January.

"Could be the first election on Christmas Day, couldn't it?" he said to reporters, though the vote by law would not fall on that date.

"I hope not to be there," he quickly added. "I obviously hope not to be there. I don't want to go into an election any more than anyone else does. But there are some fundamentals that are hugely important to the success, to our ability to make changes in the province." 

He called the bill "a line in the sand for me." He said he might accepts amendments to the bill but only if they're "very minor."

Higgs made his comments after People's Alliance Leader Kris Austin threatened to withhold support for government legislation over the issue of the reclassification of paramedics.

Austin campaigned on the issue in last year's election, as did Higgs, but he complained in the legislature Thursday morning that the Progressive Conservative minority government still hasn't moved on it.

While People's Alliance Leader Kris Austin hasn't said how his party will vote on the essential-services bill, he did threaten to withhold support for government legislation over the issue of the reclassification of paramedics. (Radio-Canada)

And he said he and his two fellow Alliance MLAs could start voting against PC bills if it doesn't happen before Christmas.

"They've got some serious bills that they're putting forward, and we need this done," Austin told reporters.

"We want the paramedics to be reclassified for their morale. We want better service delivery and we believe reclassification will help with that."

He wouldn't say how his party would vote on the essential-services bill if it became a confidence matter. 

Alliance support in question

The Alliance has pledged to support the PCs on confidence votes until the spring, but Austin said he was losing patience after Health Minister Ted Flemming brushed off his demands about paramedics during question period.

Flemming said he supports the idea, but "there's a process that needs to go through … I'm not going to be boxed in, in the legislature, when someone gets up and says 'I demand that you do this and say you're going to do it now.'"

That prompted Austin's scrum with reporters. He said his caucus is still "somewhat torn" on whether to support a controversial bill on mandatory vaccinations and wants to avoid "at all costs" a strike by nursing home workers in the new year.

Health Minister Ted Flemming said he wouldn't be 'boxed in' on paramedic reclassification, leading to the People's Alliance to question supporting government legislation going forward. (Jacques Poitras/CBC)

But he would not commit to supporting any government bills if his demand isn't met. 

The existing law on essential services in nursing homes was struck down by a judge earlier this year. She upheld a labour board ruling that the law was too much of a limit on the right to strike.

But the judge put the effect of her ruling on hold for six months to give the government time to pass a better law.

Ability to pay

The Tories introduced that proposed law last month. It would create a new process for designating essential employees and add a binding arbitration process.

But it also would add conditions that an arbitrator must take into account, including the government's ability to pay for any wage increases.

The legislature is scheduled to adjourn for Christmas on Friday, Dec. 20, but "we will stay here to New Year's Eve, Christmas Eve," Higgs said.

"We will stay here to put that through the system. We must have that resolved before we leave the house."

Earlier this year, opposition MLAs banded together to pass a symbolic motion calling on Higgs to agree to binding arbitration without conditions to resolve the wage dispute with unionized nursing home workers.

The bill in question would create a new process for designating essential employees and add a binding arbitration process. The existing law on essential services in nursing homes was struck down by a judge earlier this year. (Hadeel Ibrahim/CBC)

The Opposition Liberals plan to move an amendment to remove the "ability to pay" condition from the PC bill.

Higgs didn't specify whether he'd consider votes on amendments to be confidence votes or only the final vote on the bill at third reading.

The premier also said he hopes to have an announcement on the reclassification of paramedics before Christmas.

"It's important to us too," he said. "The timing is, I think, imminent so I don't see that being a show-stopper."

Green Party leader David Coon said it's "absurd" that Higgs would make the essential-services bill a confidence matter and called on the premier to work collaboratively with all parties to craft a better piece of legislation. 

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