Liberals court Greens for governing partnership

The New Brunswick Liberals say they'll go after a partnership with the Green Party to gain the confidence of the the legislature after coming up short of seats on election night.

Premier has to act quickly to seek the confidence of house, professor says

Premier Brian Gallant, standing before the Liberal caucus outside the New Brunswick Legislative Building, said Wednesday the party will approach the Greens about a formal partnership. (Jacques Poitras/CBC)

New Brunswick Liberals have made the first public move to create a formal governing partnership after coming up short of seats in the legislature on election night.

Premier Brian Gallant, standing in front of the Liberal caucus outside the legislative building, announced the party will approach the Green Party in hopes of forming a partnership based on shared "progressive policies."

What shape that partnership would take would have to be discussed, Gallant said, but it's the first public chess move by a party in the two days since the election Monday left both the Liberals and Progressive Conservatives each claiming the right to govern.

He said the next step is for party officials to find out if the Green Party is willing to talk. 

After Gallant's announcement, the Green Party said it would not have a comment Wednesday. 

PC Leader Blaine Higgs did not agree to be interviewed Wednesday either. 

Since the two major parties fell short of the required 25 seats for a majority — the PCs won 22 and the Liberals 21, pending recounts — there has been much speculation about whether they would court the six seats evenly split between the Greens and the People's Alliance.

Who's New Brunswick's next premier? Brian Gallant or Blaine Higgs? (CANADIAN PRESS)

Gallant said during the campaign that he would not work with the PCs or the Alliance because they don't share Liberal "values." He said Wednesday that voters had sent a clear message they wanted the government to work with "other parties," but he suggested that the Greens are the more natural pairing for the Liberals.  

Caucus members looked at "a bit of the platform of the Green Party" and were surprised at similarities to the Liberal program, Gallant said during the brief news conference, where he used the word "progressive" eight times to describe Liberal principles.

"We do feel there are a lot of principles, values and certainly very specific policy measures that match up," he said.

A meeting has not been set. 

Greens keeping mum

Earlier in the day, Green Party Leader David Coon refused to discuss his options in detail, saying he and his new MLAs want to look for ways to make the legislature more co-operative to reflect the will of voters.

He told reporters that the three other parties all have positions the Greens could support.

Both the Liberals and Tories have been approaching opposing MLAs to talk about changing sides or taking the Speaker's post, which would leave one party down a vote. 

Quick action needed

Gallant must call a session of the legislature very soon if he wants the Liberals to form the legitimate government, says Donald Savoie, a professor who specializes in public administration.

Gallant can't wait until sometime before Christmas, as he told reporters on Tuesday, before the legislature sits, said Donald Savoie, who holds the Canada Research Chair in public administration and governance at the University of Moncton.

"It will only be a legitimate government after the assembly gives it a vote of confidence, so he's got to move quite quickly," Savoie said, suggesting Gallant and his Liberals were like a hockey team keeping possession of the puck while the clocked ticked down.

"He cannot rag the puck on this one." 

Even if [Gallant] had only won five seats, he has that right to meet the assembly and ask for confidence.- Donald Savoie , 

Savoie urged the premier to call an assembly in no more than a week or two, saying there should be "a sense of urgency." 

Until then, the government is being run the same way it was run during the election campaign — and the Liberals are still in power.

Later on Wednesday, Gallant told reporters he would call an assembly in November "at the very latest."

He said the Liberals  would prefer to act sooner, but the party is in the midst of exploring potential governing partners. 

Permission to govern

Gallant has said he's received permission from Lt.-Gov. Jocelyne Roy-Vienneau to try to govern and win the confidence of the legislature.  

Higgs, however, has said he was told by the lieutenant-governor's office that Gallant hadn't, in fact, received permission. The PC leader suggested the issue can't even be decided until after likely recounts Oct. 5 in several close races.

As PCs claim victory, Liberals try to hold onto power. 1:40

Asked for clarification of the lieutenant-governor's position, Tim Richardson, principal secretary to Roy-Vienneau, said she asked Gallant at their meeting whether he has the confidence of the house.

"More discussions need to take place, and we await his decision," Richardson said, adding that would be the only comment. 

Not always like hockey

But, meanwhile, people are still wondering who holds the best cards: Gallant, who is still premier, according to the Westminster system of government, and also won a greater share of the vote, or Higgs, who won the most seats and is referring to himself as premier-elect?

Savoie suggested New Brunswickers are comparing the contest to a sport. 

"I think New Brunswickers look at this like they would a hockey game," he said. "Montreal Canadiens got four goals, Toronto got three … and Montreal Canadiens wins."  

But although the party with the most seats usually dictates who forms government, Savoie said the sitting premier has a constitutional right to seek a vote of confidence from the legislature, even if he wins fewer seats.

Don't toy with democracy

"New Brunswickers don't elect provincial government, we elect members to the assembly. In turn they decide who should form government. 

"Even if he [Gallant] had only won five seats, he has that right to meet the assembly and ask for confidence."

Brian Gallant is still the premier and still in charge, at least for the time being. We speak with public policy expert Donald Savoie about the strange state of affairs. 12:27

Savoie suspects many calls are being made right now, asking elected MLAs to cross the floor, despite the decisions made by voters on Monday.  

"I think we need to respect the will of New Brunswickers," he said. "That's what democracy is all about. We can't play fast and loose with democracy." 

Before question period in the House of Commons on Wednesday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was asked whether Gallant or Higgs "controls New New Brunswick."

His answer: "We have a strong Constitution and Parliamentary precedent that will help them work this out.

Nova Scotia experience

Former Nova Scotia Premier Rodney MacDonald called New Brunswick's election a reminder of when he governed a minority PC government from 2006 to 2009.

At the time, the PCs held 23 seats, the NDP had 20 and the Liberals 9.

MacDonald managed to steer the minority government for three years. Then his government lost a confidence vote, which led to an election his party lost to the NDP under Darrell Dexter.

"I've always been of the belief that the party with the most seats should have the first opportunity to assume power," he said.

'The people are never wrong'

MacDonald said keeping a minority government is not a simple task, and it was often a struggle to get legislation passed.

"If you will, you will need a dance partner," he said.

The PCs never formed a coalition with another party, but there was a partnership with the Liberals with respect to support for budgets.

"The Green or the People's Alliance Party, they're going to need to play a role in this, and so I would expect that to happen," MacDonald said.

He said party leaders and MLAs have a responsibility to make sure government works for the people of New Brunswick.

"The people are never wrong," he said. "The people decided what they want to see."

With files from Jacques Poitras and Information Morning Fredericton