New Brunswick·Analysis

Will political partnership last after COVID-19? Premier is hopeful

An unlikely political partnership forged during the early days of the COVID-19 outbreak may soon be put to the test as the health emergency starts to move into a new phase.

Green Party Leader David Coon wants legislature to resume

Premier Blaine Higgs said he is happy to keep the partisanship of regular sessions of the legislature on hold while an all-party cabinet committee oversees decisions. (Edwin Hunter/CBC News)

An unlikely political partnership forged during the early days of the COVID-19 outbreak may soon be put to the test as the health emergency starts to move into a new phase.

Premier Blaine Higgs and Green Leader David Coon are the farthest thing from ideological soul-mates, but alarm about the pandemic pushed them to work together.

Now as they look past the initial response to longer-term policies to revive the New Brunswick economy, disagreements between the two leaders may start to re-emerge.

Coon wants the legislature to resume functioning, even in a different way, as soon as possible. Higgs is happy to keep its partisanship on hold while an all-party cabinet committee oversees decisions.

At the same time, Coon says the province will need to keep spending money long after the initial COVID-19 emergency passes. Higgs sounded a much more cautionary note Monday, questioning if the government will have the revenue to do that.

Will politicians change?

Political scientist J.P. Lewis of the University of New Brunswick in Saint John says it's impossible to predict how the Higgs-Coon dynamic will evolve. 

"It's easy to forget how things were pretty partisan not long before the pandemic happened," he said, referring to what seemed like an almost certain spring election. "It was going in a much different direction."

If New Brunswick escapes the worst-case scenario and soon returns to normal, Lewis says the question will be: "Do transformative events, do crises, really change politicians and how they act and how they behave?"

Since taking power with a minority government in November 2018, Higgs has relied on the People's Alliance to pass legislation and win confidence votes. 

He said last December it was harder to work with Coon because the Green leader was too "narrowly focused" and adopted an "all or nothing" approach to issues.

Green Party Leader David Coon said he wants the legislature to resume functioning, even in a different way, as soon as possible. (Jacques Poitras/CBC)

But the resignation of deputy premier Robert Gauvin in February changed the math. Alliance support was no longer enough to guarantee Higgs could get bills and budgets passed. 

"The balance of power has shifted in this legislature toward the Green caucus," Coon declared on March 10, the day the PCs brought in their new budget.

That leverage increased as the week wore on and it became clear the government had to get its budget passed quickly to focus entirely on the coronavirus.

Three days later Coon said he would vote for the budget to ensure several elements, including increased social assistance payments, were approved.

In return for that support, and the decision by two other Green MLAs to let the budget vote happen quickly, Higgs guaranteed publicly that he would not bring back his cancelled plan for the nighttime closure of emergency departments in small hospitals.

Coon's seat on the all-party cabinet committee Higgs set up also contributed to the rapprochement.

"I clearly see things that have been brought to me that I've brought forward, that are being addressed. I'm seeing things that I'm proposing being taken on board, and I see results," Coon said in March.

"Officials treat me as they would anyone else on the cabinet committee in terms of me reaching out to them and them responding very quickly."

Divisions set aside

COVID-19 has also required everyone to put aside other issues that could divide them. Coon advocates stricter regulations on industry to lower greenhouse gas emissions than what the Higgs government is proposing.

All four party leaders have formed a COVID-19 committee that discusses the provincial response to the pandemic. (Jacques Poitras/CBC)

Now with New Brunswick's relative success at keeping the pandemic contained, talk is turning to what happens next--and Higgs and Coon differ on both substance and process.

Coon says the big spending that the province has done in the last month, which wiped out the projected $92.4 million surplus for 2020-21, will need to continue.

"We've got a long haul here so programs and supports are going to have to be put in place to help people and businesses over the long term," he told reporters Friday.

Higgs said Monday he'll "entertain" that discussion with all party leaders but questioned if New Brunswickers will want to pay higher taxes to fund that kind of spending--or if Ottawa will have the revenue required to support it through transfer payments.

"I don't think we can make any statement that we should look at a higher level of expenditure," Higgs said. "It should be what is that expenditure going to achieve in relation to what it means for the long haul for New Brunswick citizens?"

The two leaders don't agree on where that debate should take place, either.

Meet more frequently

While Green Party Leader David Coon took part in the April 17 sitting of the legislature that lasted 25 minutes, passed two bills and had no Question Period, he said he hopes it was the last time that was done. (CBC)

The all-party committee is now meeting only twice a week, less frequently than at the beginning of the crisis, according to Alliance leader Kris Austin.

Coon says it was a temporary, emergency measure and it's time to discuss how "to reinstate a more or less fully functioning legislature" with proceedings either in person or online.

But Higgs is reluctant to phase out the all-party committee. It hews closely to a vision of government he was advocating long before COVID-19: a less partisan, more practical form of decision-making.

Higgs has complained for years that new governments take office and throw out all the plans of the administration they're replacing just because they came from a different party.

Friday he said the all-party committee was a way to avoid that, to "build long-term targets" and a plan that can "stand the test of time but [doesn't] have to be reinvented through every new government or every new election." 

But Coon believes strongly that the legislature is the proper forum for that debate.

While he took part in last Friday's 25-minute sitting, which saw two bills introduced and passed with no debate and no Question Period, "it's my sincere hope that this is the last time we go through that," he said.

'Unique match'

There are still areas of agreement between the two leaders: both Higgs and Coon have talked like protectionists in recent days.

The premier believes New Brunswick has become too dependent on global supply chains for products ranging from food to the N95 medical masks that U.S. President Donald Trump tried to hoard.

He said Monday that New Brunswick has plenty of land that could be converted to farms--a concept along the lines of the "food security" that Coon has advocated. 

The factor most likely to keep the Higgs-Coon understanding from completely falling apart comes down to numbers: whenever the legislature does resume normal sittings, the PC government is still going to need Coon's vote.

But Lewis says both leaders are also particularly suited to maintaining their rapport. Higgs's pragmatism and Coon's belief in democratic accountability "make it a unique match," he said.

"I take the view that I think they're both unique political actors that are more flexible or stand out from others." 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jacques Poitras

Provincial Affairs reporter

Jacques Poitras has been CBC's provincial affairs reporter in New Brunswick since 2000. Raised in Moncton, he also produces the CBC political podcast Spin Reduxit.

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