New Brunswick

Miramichi lacks two MLAs as local government debate begins

A historic debate on local government reform is getting underway at the New Brunswick Legislature with large parts of the Miramichi area sitting on the sidelines without a voice.

Premier has cited COVID cases for lack of byelections this fall

People in two Miramichi-area ridings do not have representation in the legislature as MLAs get ready to debate proposed municipal changes. (Daniel McHardie/CBC News file photo)

A historic debate on local government reform is getting underway at the New Brunswick Legislature with large parts of the Miramichi area sitting on the sidelines without a voice.

Two ridings in the region lack elected members of the legislature who could examine, amend and vote on the bill, which was introduced by Local Government Reform Minister Daniel Allain on Wednesday. 

"We have no voice, as far as somebody to represent us to the government," says Georges Savoie, the mayor of the village of Neguac in the riding of Miramichi Bay-Neguac.

"It's a problem because with no MLA, we try to reach the minister directly, and that is not always something that's possible. It's not easy when you don't have a link like the MLA." 

The bill, which the government plans to pass before Christmas, will overhaul local governance by slashing the number of municipalities and giving regional service commissions greater powers to coordinate service delivery.

Neguac Mayor Georges Savoie said it's not easy to voice concerns over proposed changes without an MLA as a link. (Bridget Yard/CBC)

Savoie says Neguac will be part of the Acadian Peninsula's service commission, while nearby local service districts that have natural links to the village will come under the Miramichi commission.

"We are kind of divided from our region," he says, but he lacks an MLA he can complain to.

Health reforms and reduced hours at the provincial courthouse in Tracadie are also a concern, he says.

Miramichi Bay-Neguac's former MLA Liberal Lisa Harris resigned last August to run in the federal election. The riding includes the eastern edge of the city on the north side of the river and other communities farther up the shore.

Southwest Miramichi-Bay du Vin Progressive Conservative MLA Jake Stewart quit his seat at the same time, also to run federally. That riding includes Doaktown, Boiestown and other areas upriver from the city of Miramichi. 

Stewart defeated Harris in September's federal vote and more than two months later there have been no byelections to replace either of them in Fredericton.

Blackville Mayor Ian Fortune says the reforms suggested for his area are much too big to not have a voice in the legislature to debate them. (Village of Blackville)

Blackville Mayor Ian Fortune says he'd like to have an MLA to replace Stewart and relay his concerns that the village is being forced into an amalgamation that is "way too big."

Blackville will merge with six adjacent local service districts, or parts of them, to create a local government entity with a tax base 10 times what the village has now, the mayor says.

"We have nobody to speak up for us," said Fortune, who believes Premier Blaine Higgs should have called byelections for the two vacant seats this fall.

"They should have one in place now, or very soon, before this is going on." 

Miramichi People's Alliance MLA Michelle Conroy says she receives many calls from people in the two ridings who need help dealing with the province.

Miramichi MLA and People's Alliance member Michelle Conroy says she has been fielding calls from people in the neighbouring ridings who are reaching out to her to express their concerns. (Jacques Poitras/CBC)

"They assume that since I'm in the Miramichi region, I'm covering for them, but they don't have the right representation and they really do need it. Everyone needs it." 

Under provincial law, Premier Blaine Higgs has six months from when a seat becomes vacant to set a date for a byelection.

But a wrinkle in the law says that while the premier must set a date within six months, the date itself can be farther into the future.

Higgs repeated Wednesday that he wants the two ridings to have MLAs as soon as possible.

"We want to get representation in the area and we will be working through the timelines in order to make that happen," he said.

Higgs has been saying he chose not to call byelections this fall because of COVID-19 case numbers in the region. 

Premier Blaine Higgs said he wants to have byelections in the two ridings as soon as possible. The law gives the government up to six months to set a date. (Jacques Poitras/CBC)

Savoie says he thinks the two votes could have been held safely, given there have been federal, provincial and municipal elections during the pandemic.

Fortune noted that Higgs didn't hesitate to call a mid-pandemic snap provincial election in August 2020 when it enabled him to secure a majority government.

"He wasn't long calling one before so he could get in. And now he's turning his back on everybody," he said.

The premier's popularity took a plunge in the fall after a rise in COVID-19 cases in the wake of a full ending of all public health restrictions in July, a decision that officials later said was "not the right decision to make."

This week a new Narrative Research poll had the Liberals leading the PCs in voting intentions for the first time since 2018, with interim Liberal leader Roger Melanson preferred as premier by more respondents than Higgs.

Allain said Wednesday he logged 50,000 kilometres on his car during his consultations on local government reforms and met Miramichi mayors "numerous times" and held town halls in both vacant ridings.

Daniel Allain, New Brunswick's minister of local governance reform, says he has travelled around the province hearing from municipal leaders on the subject of reforms. (Ed Hunter/CBC)

"There has been constant contact through my department," he said.

A Liberal opposition bill now before the legislature would close the loophole in the byelection law, requiring the date itself of a byelection to be within six months of the riding becoming vacant.

All four parties in the chamber supported it unanimously on second reading and sent it to committee.

But Liberal MLA Keith Chiasson says he believes the Progressive Conservative government, which controls the committee schedule, now plans to sit on the bill without ever bringing it to a vote. 

"My theory on this is they wanted to avoid getting criticized for voting this down," he says.

Higgs wouldn't commit Wednesday to his government passing the bill on third reading.

"We did sent it to committee for a reason, in order for it to be evaluated and for a recommendation to come back," he said.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jacques Poitras

Provincial Affairs reporter

Jacques Poitras has been CBC's provincial affairs reporter in New Brunswick since 2000. He grew up in Moncton and covered Parliament in Ottawa for the New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal. He has reported on every New Brunswick election since 1995 and won awards from the Radio Television Digital News Association, the National Newspaper Awards and Amnesty International. He is also the author of five non-fiction books about New Brunswick politics and history.

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