Throne speech promises major reforms to health care, education and local government
Lt.-Gov. Brenda Murphy delivers the PC Higgs government's 2nd, possibly last, throne speech
After a year of triage and Band-Aids to treat New Brunswick's ailing economy, the Progressive Conservative government says it will now shift to stronger medicine.
The government's new speech from the throne is promising to follow through on major reforms to health care, education and local government during the new session of the legislature.
"The status quo is no longer an option," according to the speech drafted by the government and delivered Tuesday afternoon by new Lt.-Gov. Brenda Murphy. "There are many challenges facing our province. If we are to overcome them, we must face those issues head on."
Premier Blaine Higgs's first session was dominated by fixes to festering problems such as soaring WorkSafeNB premiums and staffing shortages at Ambulance New Brunswick.
Attention for ER wait times
But this speech promises movement on broader concerns.
There's a commitment to "enhance" hospital emergency departments in Fredericton, Saint John and Moncton to "improve care for patients with urgent but not life-threatening conditions," while reducing ER wait times for all patients.
It also says the government will continue studying whether to replace early-year grades in public schools with "flexible learning environments."
And there's a promise to amend legislation to force communities around Saint John to help pay for the capital and operating costs of regional facilities in the city.
The government will also encourage municipalities to share more services regionally.
But there's no mention of legislation to respond to the request by the eight cities in the province to amend binding arbitration rules so that the potential cost of contracts to municipalities is taken into account.
Moncton Mayor Dawn Arnold said Monday night that her understanding was that the government would introduce legislation this month.
Higgs told reporters after the speech that the legislation is coming now that all eight cities have voted to request it.
"That was our commitment to them, and they've fulfilled their commitment," he said.
The speech avoids discussion of potential spending cuts to services, though it warns that "the government is reviewing programs and services to ensure they provide demonstrable value for taxpayers."
There are also commitments to revisit some unfinished business from the previous session:
- The speech says legislation is coming to amend the Essential Services in Nursing Homes Act to comply with a court ruling that the previous version of the act violated collective bargaining rights. That comes as the province's standoff with the union representing nursing home workers drags on. Higgs said he wants to get the legislation passed before the Christmas break.
- The government is promising to ensure "immunization requirements will be enforced in the public school and early-learning and child-care systems," but Higgs said the bill will be "a little different" from the version last session, with some kind of process to assess requests for non-medical exemptions.
- The speech says the Tories are "working to establish a carbon pricing system" through legislation that will "achieve fairness" relative to other Atlantic provinces. Higgs opposes the federal carbon tax but said after the Liberals won the Oct. 21 election that he'd develop a price that complies with federal standards. He told reporters the government has already submitted a proposal to Ottawa.
- There's also a commitment to appoint a new official languages commissioner and a new integrity commissioner, two positions that became vacant during the last session. The government was legally required to have a permanent languages commissioner in place by July but failed to appoint someone in time, leaving an interim commissioner in place.
Hundreds of protesters
A few hundred people gathered on the lawn of the legislature for the opening of the new session Tuesday to voice concerns on a variety of issues, including problems facing small farmers, access to abortions in the province, and the use of the controversial herbicide glyphosate.
Farmers brought chickens with them to protest against legislation that limits non-quota holders to 199 laying hens. Only 16 farms in New Brunswick hold the quota and are allowed to sell eggs.
Other farms that want to sell eggs must stay under the 199 limit, which they argue isn't enough to cover the costs of production.
Abortion rights activists demonstrated over the impending closure of Clinic 554 in Fredericton. It is New Brunswick's only privately funded abortion clinic.
And a group of conservationists rallied in support of former Maritime College of Forest Technology instructor Rod Cumberland.
They allege Cumberland was fired because of his opposition to glyphosate spraying, not for misconduct, as the college has said.
Cumberland filed a lawsuit Monday against his former employer. College officials declined to comment.
Higgs faces competing pressures to make bold changes but avoid controversy as he begins his second session of the legislature.
The Tories hold only 21 of 49 seats in the legislature and have been relying on the three People's Alliance MLAs to hold the confidence of the house and pass legislation.
But Alliance Leader Kris Austin has promised to back the Tories only until next March's budget, which makes today's throne speech a key moment. He's been pushing Higgs to move faster on reforms.
Austin said Tuesday he'd like to see more action on tax reform, bilingualism and other issues, but he's not yet ready to extend his support for the PCs beyond next spring.
"I'm optimistic we can continue to work together to improve the lives of New Brunswickers, but it's a two-part relationship," he said. "It depends on what the government does, what they bring forward and what we can accomplish with them."
I didn't come here to stay here. I came here to get a job done.- Blaine Higgs, premier
The premier has said he doesn't want a snap election but isn't afraid of one either and will take the actions he considers necessary regardless of the political consequences.
"We'll make decisions that we believe are in the best interests of the province, and if that doesn't get the confidence of the house, what else we can we do?" Higgs said to reporters. "I didn't come here to stay here. I came here to get a job done."
The Liberals have 20 seats in the legislature, including Speaker Daniel Guitard and the Greens have three MLAs.
Liberal Leader Kevin Vickers said the speech fell short on commitments to rural New Brunswickers, people with low incomes, senior citizens and the northern part of the province.
"There's a general absence of care or thought for New Brunswickers," he said.
Green Leader David Coon said there were good initiatives in the speech, but in general "it comes up far short" on his party's priorities.
Two seats are vacant: St. Croix and Shediac Bay-Dieppe. Higgs must call byelections in both ridings by next spring.
With files from Angela Bosse