Opposition parties blame each other after united front on binding arbitration falls apart
Liberals suspected collusion between People's Alliance and Progressive Conservatives
The three opposition parties in the legislature pointed fingers at each other Friday after the collapse of their united front on a wage dispute between nursing home workers and the province.
The Liberals, Greens and People's Alliance failed to pass a motion late Thursday calling for binding arbitration between the Progressive Conservative government and the Canadian Union of Public Employees.
The three parties, who combined have a majority in the house, support the idea but could not agree on the wording. Time ran out before MLAs could vote Thursday evening.
The Liberals can bring the motion back when the legislature returns in May, but in the meantime the Liberals are accusing the Alliance of flip-flopping and abandoning its support for the workers to take sides with the PCs.
"There's certainly some collusion there between the Alliance and the Conservatives," Liberal house leader Guy Arseneault told reporters. "It was quite obvious to me the Alliance went back on an agreement.
He added: "When the Conservatives want something done in the house and they don't want to take the blame for it, they ask the Alliance to do it."
Austin rejected the criticism in a blunt exchange with reporters.
"The Liberals are going to school me on reversal? Give me a break," he said, pointing out the party was in power for 21 months while CUPE was trying to get a contract.
Co-operation will push for deal
He said co-operation with the PCs allows his party to push the government toward a deal including wage increases and better working conditions.
"We are more effective than the Liberals and Greens put together, because we have the government's ear to move these things forward," he said.
"That's why they're going to be coming back to the table. That's why they're going to be offering something to the workers that we've been working with them on."
Sharon Teare, president of the New Brunswick Council of Nursing Home Unions, accused Austin of going back on promises he made to the union last week.
"Kris Austin joined an alliance of some sort with Higgs," she said. "I don't know what goes on beyond closed doors, but something shifted from the last time we spoke to what happened yesterday at the [legislature]."
Liberals introduce motion
The three opposition parties have a total of 26 MLAs, a majority, and all of them said last week they want Premier Blaine Higgs to send the dispute with unionized nursing home workers to binding arbitration.
The two sides can't agree on a contract and the union's right to strike is now tied up in a court fight.
CUPE supports binding arbitration, but Higgs has refused, predicting an arbitrator would split the difference between the two positions and award a pay raise the province still can't afford.
But on Friday afternoon, Higgs released a statement by email saying the province is now offering binding arbitration, on the condition both sides agree that wages paid for similar work in the province "be the factors considered" by the arbitrator.
That dovetails with the position he took in Thursday's debate on the Liberal motion.
Greens, Alliance wanted amendments
During the debate, the Greens moved an amendment to the Liberal motion that would call for the government to "fully fund" any arbitrator's ruling.
The Alliance responded with a sub-amendment to add a requirement that arbitration take place "under terms and conditions acceptable to all negotiating parties and the province."
The Liberals say that wording "guts" the purpose of binding arbitration by limiting the scope of negotiations in the government's favour.
They say it's another example of the Alliance reversing themselves to bail out the government.
In December, the party suggested it might not support the PCs on shale gas development, but ended up voting for a throne speech amendment supporting it in the Sussex area.
But Green MLA Kevin Arseneau accused the Liberals of playing political games with the issue as well.
He said two PC MLAs were absent Thursday night when the Alliance moved their sub-amendment, giving the Liberals and the Greens an opening to team up and defeat it.
Arseneau said he suggested they do that and then try to win Alliance support for the original motion, but the Liberals rejected that idea, he said, because they "found it more important to blame the People's Alliance than do something for the nursing home workers."
Austin insisted his party still supports nursing-home workers but he criticized the CUPE leadership, calling them "impossible to work with" and accusing them of not representing rank-and-file workers.
"The more I meet with these folks, the more I realize why they can't strike a deal," he said. "They're not being rational. They're not coming to the table in good faith."
The Alliance leader said his sub-amendment was reasonable because it would be helpful to establish "a general idea of how the arbitration should move forward" and it recognizes the province's poor fiscal position.
Co-operation exception to rule
The Liberals and Greens say the outlook for three-party co-operation isn't completely bleak. They and the Alliance passed another motion Thursday calling for for a legislative committee to study adding heavy equipment to property assessments.
But the heated disagreements over the binding-arbitration motion suggest that may be an exception.
Arseneau refused to even attend last week's joint Green-Alliance news conference on binding arbitration because he objects to Alliance positions on bilingualism. At the same time, Austin vetoed the idea of inviting the Liberals to take part.
"There are some differences in what we're there for and our strategies," Arseneau said. "We're all getting used to this minority government."
Higgs said Friday that it may not be necessary to resume debate on the Liberal motion in May because he expects there'll be a deal with the union by then.