Liberals soften budget vote stance in light of COVID-19
Party leaving decision up to chief medical officer, says MLA Roger Melanson
The Liberal opposition opened the door a little wider Thursday to abandoning their push for an early provincial election now that New Brunswick has its first case of COVID-19.
Finance critic and Dieppe MLA Roger Melanson told reporters the party was essentially leaving it up to Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Jennifer Russell whether it should try to send New Brunswickers to the polls next week.
"We will follow the advice of the chief medical officer and Public Health officials in regards to how to go about moving forward," Melanson said.
"If that means we need to make decisions or changes, we'll listen."
The Liberals announced Feb. 11 that they would attempt to force an election after the Progressive Conservative minority government announced health reforms that included the nighttime closure of six small-hospital emergency rooms.
The PCs withdrew the plan five days later, but in the legislature Thursday morning Melanson said New Brunswickers had lost trust in the government over the fiasco, and that's why his party will try to vote down the budget, triggering an election.
He repeated that on a CBC political panel Thursday, to which PC Finance Minister Ernie Steeves replied: "You think calling an election now would bring the trust back to you?"
Melanson said if the government believes an election isn't warranted it could delay the legislature's vote on the budget expected Friday March 20. "They have that right," he said.
But Steeves said the vote will go ahead next week. "The budget is the budget."
Earlier this week Green Party Leader David Coon said an election might not be a good idea given that it can involve many large gatherings and a lot of social contact.
On Thursday the Quebec government banned public events of more than 250 people after the number of cases there jumped from nine to 13.
Melanson said it was too early to speculate about how such a decision here would affect an election. "It would be very different as a campaign. But we're not making those decisions today."
Asked by reporters if there was any room for the PCs and Liberals to work together on a compromise about the budget and election timing, Melanson said it was "too early to make any decision or any consideration like that" and the party would heed Russell's guidance.
"She's quite credible and she has a lot of knowledge and we'll listen carefully and make decisions accordingly," he said.
Russell said Thursday afternoon that she was recommending the cancellation of any public events of more than 150 people — a size that covers many typical election events — but wouldn't comment further.
"Whether there's an election or not, it would have to be considered in light of these particular issues," she said.
Coon said a special committee of the premier, key cabinet ministers and all political party leaders will hold its first meeting tomorrow night to discuss the response to COVID-19.
The committee could discuss "how that election might proceed based on the advice of the chief medical officer of health, with all four party leaders in the same room on this committee," Coon said.
"Obviously it wasn't just set up for that discussion but it's going to be an important opportunity where that discussion can occur if it's needed."
Coon is a pivotal vote on the budget and he plans to reveal Friday morning how he will vote on the document.
Premier Blaine Higgs said he hopes the all-party committee will let "cooler heads prevail" on a possible campaign.
"I won't be talking about the possibility of an election because I don't think we should have one, but it'll be up to my colleagues in the legislature to decide that next Friday," he said.
"I think our full focus has to be on this situation, and we should have all hands on deck and that should be our main task."
Melanson's official response to the budget in the legislature Thursday was punctuated by a series of procedural complaints by the PC government over his choice of words.
The Liberal MLA said the government had "deliberately deceived" the legislature, one example of violating the parliamentary rule against accusing another member of lying.
PC house leader Glen Savoie asked Melanson to withdraw the comments and he did, but not before Liberal house leader Guy Arseneault said he wanted to congratulate Melanson for the speech.
"I like it, I like it, I like it," Arseneault shouted to the applause of Liberal MLAs.
Coon said he didn't think the sharp partisan exchange was a sign the parties couldn't work together on a major issue like COVID-19.
"There's always lots of political theatre in the legislative assembly, and I think what you were seeing was political theatre. When the rubber hits the road, I think the political theatre will be put aside."