In New Brunswick election preview, health-care dominates last session

New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs and Liberal opposition leader Susan Holt are trading shots over a teetering health-care system as the two gear up for the provincial election, the latest poll showing them neck and neck.

Just before the House adjourned Friday, question period kicked off with Holt holding the premier's feet to the fire over $174 million spent on hiring travel nurses to fill gaps in New Brunswick's health-care system during the pandemic.

The province's auditor general last week said the contracts signed by the Vitalite and Horizon health networks did not demonstrate value for money.

"We signed more bad contracts at the very time when he fired the health-care boards and fired the CEO," Holt said, referring to the actions taken by the Progressive Conservative premier in 2022 following a high-profile death of a patient waiting for service at the ER at Fredericton's hospital. "Imagine the pressure that those at Vitalite were under to deliver whatever the premier wanted to save their jobs."

The Official Opposition leader pointed out the contracts were signed in 2022.

"It took two years and the auditor general offering to do an audit before the premier would dig into this. Why didn't the premier act sooner when we knew that bad contracts were being signed in July 2022?"

Higgs reminded the Liberal leader that his Tory government had asked the auditor general to investigate the contracts, not mentioning that it did so only after an investigation by the Globe and Mail newspaper in February exposed the problem. However, the premier acknowledged they were bad contracts that shouldhave been negotiated better.

"We all have to be accountable. I take responsibility. As premier, I accept the challenge and the re-sponsibilityofthis and the importance of this job, but, in doing that, I have to be in a position to hold other people accountable as well because we all have a role to play."

But Higgs added that context was important. The contracts were signed in the midst of 400 COVID-19 outbreaks, largely at schools and long-term care homes for seniors. And he defended his decision to fire the health boards, saying Holt didn't seem to know how they used to work.

"There was no oversight. There was no direct relationship to how the health authorities worked, how they were managed, and how they understood what was going on, on any day. There was no modelling of the service levels or looking at whether we could get better in other areas. When you look at many of the changes in health care and the improvements that have been made in spite of having 80,000 more people in the province, the oversight is growing every day."

Green opposition leader David Coon, whose party holds three seats, used his last question to ask why Higgs had marginalized eight of his cabinet ministers, who left over the course of the last year, largely stemming from a dispute over the premier's leadership style and his championing of gender policy changes at schools that have led to cries of discrimination and a lawsuit filed by civil rights groups.

"This premier prevented them from doing their jobs as members of cabinet," Coon said. "So, they either tendered their resignations or were turfed. How does he work now? He has his campaign manager in his office reviewing sex education programming. That's who he's working with."

The premier admitted that it had been a tough year for him.

"You don't always get a consensus, and we didn't. It was obvious that we didn't. It's unfortunate, and I feel bad that some of my colleagues retired or left because of that particular issue back in June of last year. Others were on the path to retirement in any case."

Higgs ended with a parting shot at Holt, whose social development critic, Dieppe MLA Richard Losier, quit recently after only 13 months in office.

"If you have someone leave the caucus after a year or so, maybe there'll be more," he said.

The Tory MLAs who served their last day in the House and won't be re-offering include former cabinet ministers Daniel Allain, Andrea Anderson-Mason, Jeff Carr, Bruce Fitch, Mike Holland, Dorothy Shephard and Ross Wetmore.

Earlier this year, former Tory cabinet ministers Arlene Dunn, Trevor Holder and Gary Crossman resigned their seats and quit politics. Additionally, former education minister Dominic Cardy, who was kicked out of the Tory caucus and became an Independent last year after a dispute with the premier, won't be running again.

Cardy, who never shies from a debate, used his last member's statement Friday to honour the 25th anniversary of Bernard Lord's victory in the provincial election on June 7, 1999, when he came from behind in the polls to win a landslide, the first of two back-to-back majorities.

Cardy contrasted the Higgs regime with Lord's, arguing that the latter rejected right-wing populism.

"It pushed and showed you could win by uniting English and French New Brunswickers, that a Progressive Conservative party could win by balancing fiscal responsibility with care for those who are most vulnerable," said Cardy, who's created a new centrist federal party called Centre Ice Canadians.

"My hope is that one day, we can look back at that election in 1999 as part of an interrupted thread of progress of a party with a noble and rich tradition in this province's history and I hope will rise again."

Higgs, however, said when people assess his government they should look at the big picture: six straight years of budget surpluses, $2 billion in debt wiped off the province's books, and record growth, with New Brunswick's population nearing 850,000.

The provincial election can be held no later than Oct. 21, and the next House sitting is scheduled for Nov. 19.

Asked about the upcoming election, Higgs said he was hoping for a breakthrough in northern New Brunswick, which is mostly francophone and where the Tories have largely been shut out.

He also admitted his majority government's survival had weighed on his mind last year when eight Tories openly revolted against his leadership.

"It's been a difficult year," Higgs told reporters. "Because there's always a tenseness in the caucus meetings. And I don't like that to be the case, for sure. But we had the majority of our caucus that wanted to move forward. We've seen the support from parents, and at some point you want to move on. I don't always get what I want, and none of us ever do. So you have to accept the will, in this case, ofthe majority in caucus."

Holt will be running where she lives in Fredericton and not in Bathurst East-Nepisiguit-Saint-Isidore, a Liberal stronghold where she won in a byelection last year.

"It's been tumultuous," she said of the session. "It's been incredible to see members of government voting with their feet and leaving the premier and leaving their positions as ministers and MLAs in numbers we've never seen before. We've seen the premier all over the map, in terms of where his focus is, bringing people from outside to help him, and not focusing on what New Brunswickers really need. They need life to be made more affordable."

Coon said the low point was the premier becoming a one-man show.

"That's taken us to terrible places. It's undemocratic and we lose the diversity of views that need to be around the cabinet table to come up with good decisions for New Brunswickers."

Government House Leader Glen Savoie told reporters the opposition leaders had a short memory.

"When COVID hit, our premier invited leaders of the opposition to come in and be part of the management ofthe crisis," Savoie said. "Ifyoulook at what he did, brought everyone together, brought them into the cabinet room and had discussions on what was in the best interest of the health of New Brunswickers, how does that line up with what they're trying to put out there?"

John Chilibeck, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Daily Gleaner