New Brunswick

Liberal, Green leaders weigh options after Higgs decides to revive COVID committee

At least two political party leaders haven’t decided yet whether to rejoin Premier Blaine Higgs’s all-party COVID committee.

Leaders not yet onboard with joining all-party committee again as case numbers break records

Green Leader David Coon and Liberal Leader Roger Melanson haven't decided whether they will join the all-party COVID committee this time around. (CBC)

At least two political party leaders haven't decided yet whether to rejoin Premier Blaine Higgs's all-party COVID committee.

With a COVID-19 emergency order back in place in New Brunswick, Higgs has invited the leaders of the three opposition parties in the legislature to reconstitute the committee, a sounding board for the government's pandemic response.

"At this point they're contemplating that," Higgs said in a briefing last Friday.

As of Monday afternoon, Opposition Liberal Leader Roger Melanson and Green Leader David Coon had not made up their minds.

"Mr. Melanson is considering whether or not to rejoin the COVID-19 committee," said spokesperson Ashley Beaudin.

"He is currently discussing it with the Liberal caucus and a statement will be made when they've reached a decision. Until then, Mr. Melanson will not be commenting on the matter."

Coon is also undecided and said he's waiting to hear back from government officials on whether more of the information presented to the committee will be publicly available.

"There's so much that's discussed in the COVID cabinet committee that should be presented to New Brunswickers," he said.

Committee remnant of minority era

Higgs invited the other three party leaders to join the ad hoc committee in the early days of the pandemic in March 2020, when he did not have a majority government.

While the Progressive Conservative cabinet remained the final decision-making authority for COVID-19 measures under the provincial state of emergency, the all-party committee was able to get briefings and provide some oversight.

But the other party leaders were sometimes in a bind when decisions were controversial, because joining the committee involved taking an oath of cabinet confidentiality, just like regular ministers do.

The COVID cabinet committee originated during the early days of the pandemic, when Premier Blaine Higgs only had a minority government and Kevin Vickers was still Liberal leader. (Jacques Poitras/CBC)

Coon says while it was a helpful check on the government's "tremendous power" under the Emergency Act, the requirement for secrecy around information such as case projections, the state of contact tracing, hospital resources and other issues was frustrating.

"There's very little presented to the COVID committee that shouldn't be publicly available," he said.

He said he wants a better "appreciation" of how information will be shared this time around.

People's Alliance on board

People's Alliance Leader Kris Austin said in a written statement that he has agreed to rejoin, and his understanding is cabinet confidentiality rules will apply again. 

Joining could make it harder for the opposition parties to break from the committee consensus to criticize government decisions, at a time when case counts are hitting record highs and there's more disagreement than ever over the premier's response.

Melanson has recently attributed the high case numbers to "public health inaction" and was calling for a new mask mandate before Higgs finally imposed one.

"This is the most critical the opposition parties have been since March 2020," said political scientist J.P. Lewis of the University of New Brunswick in Saint John. "So it is a bit of a turn if you say, 'We're going to go back.'" 

People’s Alliance Leader Kris Austin said he will rejoin the COVID committee. (CBC News)

Being part of the committee may also make it awkward if Higgs calls two provincial byelections for this fall and COVID response becomes an issue in those campaigns.

The MLAs for Southwest Miramichi-Bay du Vin and Miramichi Bay-Neguac both resigned their seats in August to run in the federal election.

But Lewis says in the end, Melanson and Coon should probably sign on so they can be part of the effort to turn around a dire situation.

"I don't think there's a downside," he said.

"It would seem kind of odd to not want to participate," he said. "I feel that you could still publicly share your criticism in certain ways but be part of this cabinet committee. … I think you could argue that this is the best way you can influence the government."

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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