Blaine Higgs calls New Brunswick election for Sept. 14, despite pandemic
Decision comes after 4 party leaders fail to reach agreement on keeping Higgs in power for 2 more years
Premier Blaine Higgs has called a provincial election, the first that will be held in Canada during the COVID-19 pandemic, for Sept. 14.
Higgs visited Lt.-Gov. Brenda Murphy at Government House in Fredericton on Monday afternoon and asked her to dissolve the legislature. She agreed.
Speaking to reporters outside, the Progressive Conservative leader almost immediately created confusion when he refused to rule out suspending the election in the event of a major COVID-19 outbreak — something he lacks the power to do.
"Sure," Higgs said when a reporter asked whether circumstances in the pandemic might lead him to "delay, cancel or modify" the election.
If there were an outbreak that were untraceable, "it would be a discussion with Public Health to say, 'have we got this or is this a concern to put a halt [on it]?'"
Two weeks ago, the province's chief electoral officer, Kim Poffenroth, told a committee of MLAs that she would not be able to stop a campaign once it began, even in the event of a COVID-19 outbreak.
"There's very little I can do," she said. "The election has to go, and we make it happen. That's what it is."
The only way to stop an election would be if someone were given the power through amendments to the Elections Act, she said at the time.
With the legislature now dissolved for the campaign, that can't happen.
Elections New Brunswick spokesperson Paul Harpelle said Monday that Poffenroth "is not sure under what authority the premier would be able to suspend an election. She knows for certain the Elections Act does not give her the authority to postpone the election."
Liberal Leader Kevin Vickers said the premier's confusion over the legal authority to halt the campaign is another reason it was a mistake to call an election before the end of the pandemic.
"The very nature of your question … shows the irresponsibility of having called this election," he said.
Higgs said Monday that "I would guess" the election could be stopped under the province's COVID-19 emergency order proclaimed under the Emergency Measures Act.
But the Elections Act says a snap election must last 28 to 38 days, and its "time periods" are exempt from the Emergency Measures Act.
WATCH | New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs announces provincial election:
"I would suggest that if we had an outbreak, and if it was a concern to Public Health, we would find a way to manage safely," Higgs said, saying there was no need to "hypothesize on all kinds of things happening" because a severe outbreak is unlikely.
But the PC leader, who has won widespread praise and popularity of his handling of the pandemic and New Brunswick's low case numbers, acknowledged he hadn't checked whether he had the legal authority to stop an election once it was underway.
"I am not looking to stop or suspend, and I did not go asking the question, 'Could we stop or suspend?' If I need a legal answer on that, that's fine, I can get that. However, logic will prevail if we have a safety issue in this province."
Higgs called the election three days after the Liberal opposition pulled out of four-party negotiations on a proposal from Higgs that would have allowed his government to stay in power until October 2022 or until the end of the pandemic.
The Liberals said that would hand too much power to Higgs and urged him not to go to the polls until the pandemic is over.
All four parties with seats in the legislature spoke to reporters Monday about the start of the campaign, including about how the election will unfold differently because of COVID-19.
- Higgs said PC candidates will not campaign door to door and will not leave paper material in mailboxes.
- Vickers said he is planning to run in the riding of Miramichi, where he is from. He had planned to run in a byelection this fall in Shediac Bay-Dieppe, but scheduled byelections are replaced by the general election.
- Vickers confirmed the Liberals are talking to former PC cabinet minister Robert Gauvin, who quit the Tories in February, about running as a Liberal in Shediac Bay-Dieppe.
- People's Alliance Leader Kris Austin urged voters to support his party to ensure no party wins a majority for the second straight election. "Minority government is good government," he said.
- Green Party Leader David Coon rejected the idea of NDP Leader Mackenzie Thomason of an agreement in which each party would not run candidates in ridings where the other is strong, to help elect progressive MLAs. "I see no rationale for that," he said, vowing the Greens would have candidates in all 49 ridings.
Higgs is seeking to become the first premier of New Brunswick to win re-election since Bernard Lord in 2003.
He took office in 2018 after Liberal premier Brian Gallant's government failed to win the confidence of the legislature in the wake of an inconclusive election.
Standings in the legislature when it was dissolved Monday were 20 PCs, 20 Liberals, three Green MLAs, three People's Alliance MLAs and one independent. Two seats were vacant.
For complete coverage | Links to all New Brunswick votes 2020 stories
With files from Information Morning Fredericton