PC ministers spar over vaccination bill, but debate unexpectedly delayed
Attorney General Andrea Anderson-Mason voiced discomfort with Education Minister Dominic Cardy's bill
The long-awaited and potential decisive phase in New Brunswick's debate over mandatory vaccinations was abruptly put on hold Wednesday.
MLAs were poised to begin studying Education Minister Dominic Cardy's Bill 11, which would eliminate all non-medical exemptions to the requirement for vaccinations, including those on religious and philosophical grounds.
But the sitting of the legislative committee that was going to examine the bill was abruptly called off when Cardy had to attend a special meeting of the government's all-party committee on COVID-19 happening at the same time.
"It would be impossible to have proper debate on this bill without his presence, so committee was delayed until next Tuesday," said Caraquet Liberal MLA Isabelle Thériault.
Opposition MLAs on the committee hope to amend the bill in a way that could make or break its chances of passing.
Both the Liberals and the Greens will try to remove the bill's use of the notwithstanding clause from the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. By invoking the clause, the legislation is shielded from a constitutional challenge.
Attorney general voices concern
At the same time, two Progressive Conservative cabinet ministers continue to spar over the need for the legislation.
Attorney-General Andrea Anderson-Mason has repeatedly signalled she's not comfortable with the bill, and in a recent Facebook post implicitly rejected Cardy's description of its opponents.
"I was originally told that the only people who would oppose this bill would be people on the fringe," she said in a May 24 post. "That was incorrect."
She said that "being told by government what you can or cannot do with your body does not settle well."
Cardy said Tuesday he was not concerned with his PC cabinet colleague's comments.
"I think Andrea Anderson-Mason's comments have been pretty clear, and I think mine are as well, and I'm happy mine are backed by science and reason, and I'm happy to go forward on that basis," he said.
Cardy also repeated his criticisms of opponents of the bill, including protestors on the lawn of the legislature Tuesday who didn't practice physical distancing from each other.
He described them as people "who subscribe to a vague, weird Trumpian ideal of how the world works."
The unusual public spectacle of two ministers sparring over a piece of legislation would normally be untenable in the Westminster system of cabinet government.
But Higgs is allowing all his MLAs, including his ministers, a free vote on the bill.
"I don't relish the idea of two ministers duking it out in the public, but it is what it is," he said Tuesday. "They can each vote their own way."
Anderson-Mason did not respond to an interview request Wednesday.
Bill would come into effect fall 2021
Cardy's bill was introduced long before the COVID-19 pandemic and has no specific reference to the coronavirus, for which no vaccine is expected to exist until next year.
The bill would eliminate philosophical, religious and other non-medical exemptions from an existing requirement that all school children be vaccinated.
Children not vaccinated for any reason other than health concerns would not be allowed to go to public schools starting in the fall of 2021.
An earlier version of the bill was harshly criticized by anti-vaccination activists who testified during three days of committee hearings last summer.
In the wake of those hearings, some MLAs from all four parties in the legislature said they were undecided whether to support the bill.
One national anti-vaccination organization threatened to challenge the constitutionality of the legislation if it passed.
Cardy responded with a new version of the bill last November that includes the use of the notwithstanding clause of the Charter.
That would exempt the bill from a Charter challenge on a number of grounds, including sections that guarantee freedom of religion.
Liberal Leader Kevin Vickers said this week his party remains "concerned" about the preemptive suspension of Charter rights and will try to amend the bill to take out the clause. That will make it more likely that some Liberal MLAs can vote for it.
Cardy said again this week he is willing to remove the notwithstanding clause.
"For me, it wouldn't be a compromise," he said. "I have no issues with the notwithstanding clause not being included. I felt the bill would stand without it and I'm very happy to support it without it."
Vickers said the debate is really about "the best way to get the most number of people vaccinated" and said Liberal MLAs would also be able to vote freely on the bill.
Green Party Leader David Coon said his party will also introduce amendments, including one to remove the notwithstanding clause. Another would give chief medical officer of health Dr. Jennifer Russell the power to decide when the bill takes effect.
Meanwhile, People's Alliance Leader Kris Austin sounded a sceptical note about the legislation.
He said whether the notwithstanding clause stays in the bill or comes out, it's use is an acknowledgement the legislation is not constitutional.
"For me the real question is more about people's right to choose for themselves," he said, questioning whether school staff, health-care workers and eventually other government employees will also be subjected to similar laws.
"Where do we stop?" he said. "It's about government overreach to me."
Cardy said he's optimistic that there will be enough MLAs from all parties who see the merits of the bill, especially with COVID-19 highlighting the importance of vaccinations.