New Brunswick

People's Alliance leader says his support for the all-party COVID cabinet committee 'waning'

People’s Alliance Leader Kris Austin says he’s rethinking his role on an all-party COVID-19 committee because of inconsistent pandemic guidelines that he is finding hard to justify to New Brunswickers.

Kris Austin says inconsistent rules have been difficult to justify

'At what point do you throw up your hands and walk away?' People’s Alliance Leader Kris Austin asks after feeling some frustration as a member of the all-party COVID-19 cabinet committee. (CBC News)

People's Alliance Leader Kris Austin says he's rethinking his role on an all-party COVID-19 committee because of inconsistent pandemic guidelines that he is finding hard to justify to New Brunswickers.

Austin said the recent watering down of red-phase restrictions, and the lack of information being provided to opposition party leaders, causes him to question the value of the committee.

"That is something that frankly I have thought about," he said. "At what point do you throw up your hands and walk away?" 

The Alliance leader said he's not ready to quit yet but his support for the committee is "waning."

And he said that's in part because it's difficult for opposition parties to both have a role in recommendations and at the same oppose COVID-19 policies they disagree with.

"I'm honoured to be on the committee, and to be able to speak and to be a part of the discussion that happens … but at the same time, as opposition parties we have to have the flexibility to speak when we don't agree."

Premier Blaine Higgs kept the all-party COVID cabinet the committee in place even after he won a majority in last September's election. (Submitted by the Government of New Brunswick)

He is also questioning whether moving four health zones to the red phase of restrictions this week was necessary.

"I think we should have stuck it out in orange for a bit longer and see where we can go from there." 

Premier Blaine Higgs struck the all-party committee last March, the same week the first case of COVID-19 appeared in New Brunswick. It includes Higgs, key ministers and the leaders of the three opposition parties in the legislature.

I was under the understanding that red meant lockdown, that there was no extra lockdown.- Kris Austin, People's Alliance leader

Higgs had a minority government at the time and the committee was a way for the government to present a unified public health message to New Brunswickers that would not be undermined by partisan bickering.

The premier kept the committee in place even after he won a majority in last September's election and told CBC News he hopes Austin won't break from the consensus.

"It's important that we stay together as a team in our cabinet committee," he said. "This is no time after a successful 10 months to have diverse opinions in the public." 

But Austin said he's increasingly disenchanted with how the body works and is calling for "a real reset of this committee to determine how it's going to be done better." 

It has no decision-making power but gives feedback and advice on various COVID-19 measures. Only the actual Progressive Conservative cabinet has the power to approve pandemic measures. 

Higgs says though that the three opposition parties are getting "all the information" that he is given as premier by Public Health officials. "There's nothing new or different from what I'm presented." 

Consensus not always reached

This isn't the first time cracks have appeared in the consensus. Last spring Green Party Leader David Coon broke ranks with Higgs over restrictions on temporary foreign workers that were later rescinded.

At the time, Coon complained that the confidentiality oath taken by him and the other party leaders prevented him from discussing publicly what concerns he raised about the decision in the committee.

And this week Liberal Leader Roger Melanson said the committee was given little notice of the change to red-phase rules to allow schools to stay open, a shift that Education Minister Dominic Cardy said had been in the works for some time. 

Green Party Leader David Coon previously broke all-party committee ranks over restrictions on temporary foreign workers that were later rescinded. (Jacques Poitras/CBC)

Austin said he supports schools staying open but questioned why the red-phase rules were being changed now.

Consistency is the key to giving New Brunswickers confidence in COVID-19 measures, he said.

But now the government is talking for the first time this week about a new, stricter lockdown phase beyond red. 

"I was under the understanding that red meant lockdown, that there was no extra lockdown. But now red seems to be another version of orange. Schools are remaining open, and yet we're targeting churches and hair salons."

Among other rules in the red phase, only drive-in religious services are allowed, salons, gyms and entertainment centres must close, and restaurants are not allowed to provide in-housing dining.

Higgs said keeping schools open is the only change to the red rules and described it as "a bridge" between red and orange restrictions.

"The challenge becomes that we're all a bit frustrated with where we are now .. and how far do we go to shut this down?"

The Alliance leader said he gets calls from New Brunswickers asking him, as a member of the committee, to explain certain decisions, but without "relevant, specific information" it's often hard to justify them.

Austin's riding is part of Zone 3, which saw one new case on Tuesday when it was put in the red phase. The zone had a single new case again Wednesday.

"People can't grasp that," he said, and it's made more difficult when he isn't even told  where in the zone — which stretches from Minto and Chipman all the way to Perth-Andover and Plaster Rock — the cases are located.

Higgs says he understands Austin is getting pushback and believes it's a reflection of rising case numbers.

"In two weeks time, if this absolutely turns around, everybody's going to be thankful we made the moves we did. And if it doesn't turn around, people are going be saying 'do more.'"

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