COVID-19 outbreak could stop election, says PC Leader Blaine Higgs
'If we have a problem, we can deal with it,' Higgs says
Progressive Conservative Leader Blaine Higgs says he now has a legal opinion from provincial lawyers that the government could stop the provincial election if there were a serious COVID-19 outbreak.
Higgs said officials in the Office of the Attorney-General clarified that for him after he was unable to back up the claim when he first made it on Monday.
"I do believe through my discussions with OAG that it wouldn't be something that I would be able to declare myself during an election," he told reporters during a campaign stop in Saint John.
"But through Public Safety there would be a mechanism that, look, if we have a problem, we can deal with it."
A spokesperson for the Attorney-General's Office refused to explain what legal advice Higgs had been given.
"We can confirm that the Office of the Attorney General provided legal advice to the premier on this issue," Paul Bradley said in an email.
"However we can provide no further detail as legal advice is privileged and confidential."
Bradley said he was responding for both the Attorney-General's Office and the Department of Public Safety.
Emergency Measures Act permits it
PC campaign spokesperson Nicolle Carlin did not explain the legal advice in detail but late in the day said by email that "there is the ability via the Emergency Measures Act to call off an election."
"It could not be paused nor suspended, but it is possible to cancel it.
"However, given that there is no community transmission of COVID-19 presently in N.B. and given our excellent record of contact tracing and containing outbreaks, we do not anticipate the need to take such measures."
The Elections Act says a snap election must last 28 to 38 days, and its "time periods" are exempt from the Emergency Measures Act.
Two weeks ago, chief electoral officer Kim Poffenroth told a committee of MLAs that she would not be able to stop a campaign once it began, even in the event of a COVID-19 outbreak.
"There's very little I can do," she said. "The election has to go, and we make it happen. That's what it is."
But Monday, Higgs said if there were an untraceable outbreak of COVID-19, he would ask Public Health whether it could be contained or whether it was necessary to "put a halt" to the election.
In response, Elections New Brunswick spokesperson Paul Harpelle said Monday that Poffenroth "is not sure under what authority the Premier would be able to suspend an election."
"She knows for certain the Elections Act does not give her the authority to postpone the election."
Asked to back up claim
Higgs called the election three days after the Liberal opposition pulled out of four-party negotiations on a proposal from Higgs that would have allowed his government to stay in power until October 2022 or until the end of the pandemic.
The Liberals said that would hand too much power to Higgs and urged him not to go to the polls until the pandemic is over.
Liberal candidate and campaign co-chair Rob McKee, a lawyer, said his party accepts Poffenroth's explanation and urged Higgs to back up his claim.
"He should outline exactly where he thinks this power exists and then let legal scholars weigh in on the debate, because our position is that once you go, you've got to follow through."
Higgs repeated that he's "very confident" the election can unfold safely. PC candidates have been instructed not to knock on doors, for example.
"We're very cognizant of the rules and regulations of Public Health and we won't tolerate anything less," the PC leader said.
"I think by the very nature of this campaign we've demonstrated how confident, and I've demonstrated [because] it was my decision at the end of the day to call an election ... how confident I am in our health authorities, in our Public Health."