New Brunswick

Premier Higgs warns little flexibility on Friday deadline to avoid fall election

The talks on a possible four-party deal that would avert an early provincial election in New Brunswick will continue Thursday after a three-hour meeting was held Wednesday.

Liberal leader Kevin Vickers wants deadline extended for negotiations

Liberal Leader Kevin Vickers is arguing for a new deadline to reach an agreement. (Jacques Poitras/CBC)

Talks will continue Thursday on a possible four-party deal that would avert an early provincial election in New Brunswick.

But Premier Blaine Higgs warned after a first day of discussions that he won't be very flexible on a Friday deadline to reach an agreement. 

"I have to feel that there's progress here, that there's a willingness to not just delay the process," he said when asked about a Liberal proposal to extend the deadline to Sept. 15.

"If I have that comfort, then we can look at that. But if I don't, I'm looking at a window here: we'd say if we're going to have an election, we're not going to keep talking about this for the next month, or two weeks, or three weeks." 

Higgs sent a letter to the three opposition parties Monday asking them to agree to avoid forcing an early election until the scheduled date in October 2022 or until the COVID-19 pandemic is over.

If I can sense that interest, and today was a good start, then okay, I'm saying we can move the window a bit.- Premier Blaine Higgs

Higgs has been hinting for weeks that he would trigger a campaign, justifying the threat by saying the province needs stability to manage the pandemic and continue restarting the economy.

The agreement would include a promise by the other parties to not defeat the Progressive Conservative minority government on confidence and supply votes such as the budget and trigger a campaign.

In return, Higgs, whose approval ratings in polls have been at record highs, would also not call an election until 2022.

The premier says he needs a deal soon because the coming weeks are the best "window" for an election if one has to happen, with the province in a relative lull with COVID-19 ahead of a possible second wave.

But Liberal Leader Kevin Vickers said Wednesday the Friday deadline for an agreement is too soon. People's Alliance leader Kris Austin told reporters he agreed.

Higgs said he could budge a little on that, but not a lot.

"I've always liked deadlines and targets," he said, but "I have to be satisfied that there's a path forward here" in the coming days. "If I can sense that interest, and today was a good start, then okay, I'm saying we can move the window a bit.

"But if I can't see that and I can't see the willingness to really making groundbreaking changes, then … all I'm doing then is I might be the victim of someone saying 'we'll prolong this as long as we can."

Three hour meeting good first step

Vickers, Austin and Green Party leader David Coon, along with members of their teams, all filed into the sixth-floor cabinet room in Chancery Place at 3 p.m. Wednesday for the start of the discussions.

The three hours of talks were aimed at laying out an agenda for more substantive negotiations Thursday and Friday on policy and budgets.

All the leaders said at the end of the meeting that the mood was positive, though they refused to get into the substance of what they talked about. 

"The meeting today was very high-level," Vickers said. "The atmosphere was very conducive to good discussions and I believe they were very positive overall."

'No blood drawn'

On Monday Vickers declared the premier's offer "the right decision at this time," but Wednesday morning he posted a video on social media saying the Liberals would not give Higgs "unlimited power" and would not compromise on core party values.

In a prepared text given to reporters of his opening remarks in the meeting, Vickers proposed a much shorter-term guarantee of no election, lasting to March 31, 2021, or "a mutually agreed date." 

Premier Blaine Higgs says he's open to discussions, but needs to see real progress before he'd move the deadline beyond Friday. (Jacques Poitras/CBC)

He also asked Higgs for more specifics on how other parties would help set the agenda in the legislature and how they would resolve disagreements about how to interpret the deal.

At the end of the meeting he would not discuss in detail whether those concerns had been addressed, repeating several times that Wednesday's talks were "high level."

Coon and Austin were more positive about the discussions, saying the atmosphere was good.

"I feel like everyone is at this point quite interested in trying to reach an agreement," Coon said. "No one wants an election and everyone wants to see better collaboration."

Austin said the talks "should give all New Brunswickers some hope. The first day, I think, went well."

He said the talks were candid but collegial. "There was no blood drawn, I can say that," he added.

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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