An air of co-operation has suddenly blown through the New Brunswick legislature
MLAs of different stripes pleased to set up all-party committees on issues like health care, language
Maybe it's the arrival of summer weather. Maybe it's the Raptors. But there seems to be a new spirit of togetherness and cross-party co-operation at the New Brunswick legislature.
As the session winds down and MLAs prepare to adjourn for the summer, there's suddenly talk of setting up several all-party committees and caucuses so that members from the four political parties can work together on complicated issues.
One caucus is already up and running, with members from the Progressive Conservatives, Liberals, Greens and People's Alliance meeting informally last week to discuss the spraying of glyphosate.
A similar discussion may soon take place on health-care reform after what Health Minister Ted Flemming called "a sincere offer of collaboration" from Green Party Leader David Coon.
And Premier Blaine Higgs said he's open to a proposal for a permanent committee of the legislature on official languages.
After last year's provincial election failed to give any party a majority, all four parties talked about the need to work together across party lines.
Instead, the dynamic in the legislature evolved into two competing camps, with the PC government and the Alliance lining up on most issues against the Liberals and the Greens.
Now that seems to be changing.
'They have to live together'
University of Moncton political scientist Roger Ouellette said the simplest explanation is probably the best one: "Nobody wants an election," he said. "They have to live together."
J.P. Lewis, associate professor at the University of New Brunswick Saint John, agreed: "They probably want to survive."
The Liberals and the People's Alliance stand to lose seats if there were a snap election, Ouellette said. And while the PCs have led in recent polls and the Greens are showing record-high levels of support, there are no guarantees that would translate into gains.
Last fall, Higgs said it was natural to work closely with the Alliance initially because that party was first to offer its support to keep him in power, "then you work on the relationships that were more difficult."
The PC openness to Green proposals now may be a strategic choice by the Tories to change how they are seen by francophones.
"They may want to detach themselves from Austin" because of his views on language issues, Ouellette said.
The sudden burst of co-operativeness happened in the space of four sitting days last week.
Language, health care and glyphosate
Last Thursday, Green MLA Kevin Arseneau proposed a standing committee on the Official Languages Act, pointing out both the House of Commons and Senate in Ottawa have committees devoted to examining how the federal legislation is implemented.
He said it would be a way to examine the issues without the discussion becoming inflamed. The committee could review whether changes to the act are needed and receive annual reports from the official languages commissioner.
"Let's have a sincere conversation about where we are and where we're going," he said.
Higgs said he'll consider the idea, which would require the approval of the legislature to put in effect. "There may very well be value in doing that so we'll look at that," he said.
The next day, Coon proposed another all-party structure: a "caucus" of MLAs from all parties interested in health care "to help bring about the restructuring we so badly need."
Flemming immediately endorsed the idea.
"If there ever was a subject we should get together on, it there ever was a subject we should together on, it should be our health care," he said. "If there was a subject we shouldn't politicize, it should be that."
Later that morning, Energy and Resource Development Minister Mike Holland revealed to reporters that a similar caucus on natural resources had already held its first meeting earlier in the week to chat about glyphosate spraying.
Holland said he wanted to cast as wide a net as possible when formulating policy on everything from shale gas to forestry.
"There's other parties that have been in power and now there are other parties in the legislature that have perspectives on it," he said.
'Let's talk about those ideas'
Holding those discussions in a caucus meeting means they're not seen by the public — as they would be if they happened in the legislature.
But Holland said the informal, private nature of the "caucus" allows for a more candid exchange of views where MLAs could "eat the meat and spit out the bones" on the issues.
"I want to be able to talk to my colleagues and have a chance to sit down at a table and say, 'Here's what I'm thinking,' bounce ideas around [and] have a little bit of the freedom outside of the legislature to say, 'I've got some ideas; you got some ideas? Let's talk about those ideas.'"
He said Arseneau of the Greens along with Liberals Benoit Bourque and Andrew Harvey and Alliance MLAs Rick DeSaulniers and Michelle Conroy attended.
Austin not keen on bilingualism committee
The PCs may be warming up to Green proposals for co-operation, but Alliance Leader Kris Austin told reporters he's not interested in the standing committee on bilingualism.
"I don't see how a committee's going to solve that," he said. "I don't see any further benefit to talking about this more."
Those objections aside, Ouellette said all the cross-party discussion — even if strategically driven — could lead to better decisions.
"Everyone can have a partisan motive, but it can still have a positive effect," he said.
Lewis agreed that the strategic interpretation is "kind of cynical" and any signs of co-operation should be applauded.