New Brunswick

Opposition parties try to poke holes in Higgs government's reform plans

Opposition parties took aim at the Higgs government’s double-dose of major reforms Tuesday, but struggled to find easy targets for their criticisms.

Meanwhile, PC Daniel Allain touts mayoral support for his local governance reforms

Opposition parties got a chance to take aim at significant reform plans put forward by the Higgs government Tuesday in the provincial legislature. (Marco LeBlanc/Submitted)

Opposition parties took aim at the Higgs government's double dose of major reforms Tuesday, but struggled to find easy targets for their criticisms.

Local Government Reform Minister Daniel Allain gleefully pointed out to reporters that 85 to 90 per cent of mayors and other municipal leaders seem favourable to his restructuring of cities, towns, villages and rural areas. 

"That's an 'A' in my books," he said. 

The Liberals, who predicted that the health plan announced last week would contain cuts to hospitals and other services, are now accusing the government of pushing off those decisions to regional health authorities.

They instead focused on what they said were vague ideas in the plan about recruiting more doctors, nurses and other health-care workers. 

Minister of Local Government and Local Governance Reform Daniel Allain took the opportunity to tout the positive reaction his reform plan seems to be getting from many municipal leaders. (Ed Hunter/CBC News)

The plan announced last week by Health Minister Dorothy Shephard focused on new digital tools to help people access primary care and book appointments with specialists.

"Technologies can help," Liberal Leader Roger Melanson said in question period. "It's a tool to deliver some services. But technology will not fix our health care challenges. We need people. We need health-care professionals."

Shepard said the province is still working on luring more people to the sector. 

"Recruitment has been a priority since Day 1," she said.

The two reforms marked a possible turning point for the Higgs government, which saw its popularity decline during a fourth wave of COVID-19 cases and a strike by thousands of public-sector workers.

Opposition Leader Roger Melanson took aim at both the health and local governance reform plans in the legislature Tuesday. (CBC)

The local government plan will reduce the number of local entities in the province from 340 to 90. Most municipal associations welcomed the plan, though some local mayors have complained that they will be forcibly merged with neighbouring communities.

Allain told reporters that he is open to changing some of the new municipal boundaries when he introduces enabling legislation next week. 

"It's totally normal," he said. "A project like this, we don't have 100 per cent right. There's some subdivisions we could have missed, or a road."

"There's a lot of concerns on that, the fear of not knowing, and hence the reason I can't wait to bring the legislation next week so we can discuss with the opposition. Yes, for sure, there's going to be changes right on the legislature's floor." 

But Allain said he will not bend on the elimination of plebiscites that would give residents a veto on mergers. 

People’s Alliance Leader Kris Austin says people in Minto and Chipman, two communities in his riding, should be able to vote on the idea of a merger. (CBC News)

People's Alliance Leader Kris Austin, whose hometown of Minto will be merged with Chipman and some nearby rural areas, urged Allain to slow down.

"Will the minister give time for people to look at the white paper, understand what it means, before he tables legislation to bring this forward?" he asked in question period.

Austin argued that Minto and Chipman, with histories linked to mining and logging, have "distinct identities" that need to be respected. 

He said he's "open to a vote" to give residents the chance to accept or reject the idea. "I think it's the most democratic way to find the best course of action." 

Melanson criticized the plan for what he says amounts to the downloading of some provincial responsibilities, such as housing and homelessness, to the three regional service districts that will contain the province's three largest cities.

"It's pretty clear historically that the premier wants to get rid of some provincial responsibilities to have nicer financial statements," he said.

But Melanson did not call for a restoration of the plebiscite requirement for amalgamations.

"I don't know yet," he said. "I want to talk to more local entities and local leadership about if that's needed or not."

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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