New Brunswick·Analysis

Third parties reflect on what minority government meant

Despite both being third parties, the People's Alliance and Green Party had different experiences with the Progressive Conservative minority government after it took power in 2018.

Greens, People's Alliance faced vastly different realities under PC government

In 2018, Premier Blaine Higgs allowed People's Alliance Leader Kris Austin to speak at an announcement of changes to Ambulance New Brunswick, acknowledging Austin's efforts to change bilingual paramedic requirements. (Jacques Poitras)

It may seem paradoxical, but one of the main reasons Green Party candidate Luke Randall says he's running for a party with little chance of taking power is to influence government decisions. 

Randall, who's on the ballot in Fredericton North, says two years of minority government in New Brunswick show how smaller parties can use their leverage to get things done.

"One of the things that really tipped the scales for me was what David [Coon]'s been able to accomplish in the house," Randall says. 

"The legislation may not pass but the governing party often takes pieces of that legislation that don't pass and introduce them into government legislation." 

People's Alliance seek 2nd minority government

He points to a bill Coon introduced to change the Residential Tenancies Act. The legislation didn't get far, but the PCs later adopted one idea from the bill — giving victims of domestic violence the power to terminate their leases early — into their own legislation, which passed.

"We've actually gotten the conversation going," Randall said.

That's also part of the campaign pitch of the other third party in the last legislature, the People's Alliance, which is urging voters to give it the leverage it has enjoyed since 2018 for another mandate.

"Minority government, which we haven't had in over a hundred years, makes for good government," leader Kris Austin said at the outset of the campaign. 

Austin is right about one thing: the role of smaller parties in the legislature — where their votes were needed for the government to stay in office — is a new phenomenon in modern New Brunswick politics.

Different experiences under PC minority 

"One way to measure [the impact] is the experience they've had now being in that position, how it works in the minority setting and what they've been able to accomplish," said political scientist J.P. Lewis.

Despite the similar campaign messages, the Alliance and the Greens had different experiences with the Progressive Conservative minority government after it took power in 2018.

At the time there was a lot of talk, including in the Higgs government's first throne speech that November, about how all parties would "embrace the challenge of shared governance."

But Austin had already outmanoeuvred the Greens in the battle for influence.

In the wake of the election, the Greens talked about a new vision of a more consensual legislature, while the Alliance leader quickly offered to prop up the PCs for 18 months in return for policy input.

Higgs willing to listen to Alliance

Blaine Higgs took the deal and said it made him more open to listening to the Alliance than to the Greens.

"I'm here today in front of you because the Alliance party supported me to be here," he declared a week after being sworn in as premier. 

All parties got briefings from civil servants on legislation and meetings with ministers on issues, but Austin had clearly one-upped the Greens. He even took part in a government news conference unveiling a new ambulance service to address paramedic shortages.

"The political memory that stands out to me the most was early on, when Kris Austin was at one of the paramedic press conferences, standing alongside Blaine Higgs," Lewis said.

Pre-pandemic, "that to me was the height of the smaller parties getting increased political profiles in a minority legislature."

People's Alliance MLAs Kris Austin, Michelle Conroy and Rick DeSaulniers. (Jacques Poitras/CBC News)

Other areas when the Alliance says it has an influence include:

  • Passage of a bill Austin introduced to change the requirement for vehicle inspections from every year to every two years.

  • The reclassification of ambulance paramedics to move them into a different union with higher pay — a change the PCs promised in 2018 but that they made only after Austin threatened to start voting against government bills.

  • Securing more funding for the auditor general.

  • A planned reduction, announced in the March budget, to the secondary provincial property tax on businesses and cottages though that change was abandoned because of the COVID-19 revenue crunch.

Crucially, the Alliance also broke from the PCs twice at decisive moments, joining the Liberals and Greens to force the government to abandon hospital reforms in February and to withdraw a bill giving it more emergency powers in June.

Both measures would likely have happened with a majority government in power. 

On one of the Alliance's signature issues, "language fairness" and bilingualism, the record is debatable.

Austin said it was his influence that led the government to reject a recommendation that nursing homes offer bilingual service.

Failure to amend Officials Languages Act

"Because we're here, we were able to stop that," he said last month, though it's not clear the PCs would have agreed to that in any circumstance.

The party also failed to take advantage of its presence in the legislature to try to amend the Official Languages Act, despite hints from Austin that he would.

"We are all elected to this house to create laws and to change laws," he said in June 2019, suggesting it was time to exclude ambulance paramedics from the act's application.

Miramichi candidate Michelle Conroy said the lack of progress on language actually makes the case for electing more Alliance MLAs to strengthen its hand. (Jacques Poitras/CBC)

But at a moment when he had the leverage to at least force a debate, he never introduced such an amendment. 

In fact, Austin's bill on vehicle inspections was the only legislation introduced by any Alliance MLA over the last two years.

Critics say PA abandoned its principles 

Austin said last year that people think in a minority situation "that you're able to accomplish everything, and that's just not realistic."

"It's like we have a nuclear button. There's no in-between. You either collapse government, or you work with government to get as much done as you can."

Some anti-bilingualism advocates have accused the party of abandoning its principles in exchange for its partnership with Higgs.

Miramichi candidate Michelle Conroy said the lack of progress on language actually makes the case for electing more Alliance MLAs to strengthen its hand.

Risk if PCs, Alliance become too close

"We need a bigger hammer," she said.

But Lewis said there may be a risk in this election if the Alliance is seen as getting too close to the PCs.

The co-operation "may have had an immediate impact on Austin and the party accomplish some of their goals, but does it become a problem in terms of motivating your vote … from people who went to you because you were different?" 

For the Greens, excluded from Higgs's decision-making circle for most of the last two years, it's been harder to claim credit for PC decisions.

The party's three MLAs were more active with legislation. Coon introduced a total of four bills, while his colleagues Kevin Arseneau and Megan Mitton, introduced two each.

Of those eight bills, one by Coon to allow for local, small-scale generation and sale of electricity got all the way to the committee stage, where it was defeated.

Greens gain leverage following Gauvin resignation

And one by Mitton to encourage the teaching of Indigenous languages in provincial schools was adopted unanimously by a committee in June, only to die on the order paper when the election was called in August.

As recently as December 2019, Higgs continued to accuse Coon of being too "narrowly focused" to work with and adopting an "all or nothing" approach to issues.

'One of the things that really tipped the scales for me was what David [Coon]'s been able to accomplish in the house," Green Party candidate Luke Randall said. (Jacques Poitras/CBC News)

But the Greens gained new influence in February, PC deputy premier Robert Gauvin resigned from the cabinet and the party caucus to sit as an independent MLA. 

That made it harder for Higgs to pass legislation even with the Alliance's support — just as the government was drafting its second budget.

"The balance of power has shifted in this legislature toward the Green caucus," Coon said on budget day in March.

There wasn't much time for the Greens to test that influence, however, because within a week of the budget being introduced, partisanship was put on hold. All three opposition leaders joined an all-party COVID-19 cabinet committee and put political jockeying on hold.

Greens averaging above 15 per cent in polls

Coon did wrest one major concession from Higgs that week. In return for the Greens not blocking quick passage of the budget, the premier promised not to revive the cancelled plan to reduce hours of service at six small hospital emergency departments.

Green influence may be more visible now, during the campaign, when the CBC poll tracker shows the party averaging 15.8 percent in the polls.

That's in part thanks to its increased visibility in the last two years, and as the party rises, the Liberals have moved toward Green positions, promising to fund abortion services at Fredericton's Clinic 554 and ban glyphosate spraying. 

"Not even a year ago, they voted against what they announced," Green candidate Kevin Arseneau crowed in a social media post. "Better late than never. Happy to be part of those plowing the path."

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