New Brunswick's education minister has renewed his scathing criticism of online conspiracy theories by accusing opposition parties of amplifying fringe ideas during a debate on one of his bills.
Dominic Cardy repeatedly suggested during a legislative committee meeting Wednesday that Liberal and People's Alliance objections to a bill creating an online child-care registry were inspired by anti-vaccination activists.
"I'm not sure from whom he's getting his questions, but I would suggest he might want to up the quality of those ones, because some of these are really going down a little bit of a conspiratorial rabbit hole," Cardy said of Kent South Liberal MLA Benoît Bourque.
Cardy also invoked the Jan. 6 storming of the U.S. Capitol building by extremist supporters of former president Donald Trump.
"The more you learn about populism, the less you tend to want to imitate it, and I'd commend the member to similarly educate himself on that file," he said.
Bourque said after the meeting that his questions were "not at all" inspired by anti-vaccination activists but by the general public.
"We're not that easily swayed," he said.
Heated exchanges in four-hour debate
The nearly four hours of debate on Bill 3 was punctuated by several heated exchanges between Cardy, Bourque and People's Alliance Leader Kris Austin.
Cardy said the Alliance, "twisting in the populist wind," had chosen to "meander down some little conspiracist lane" by questioning the motives behind the bill.
When Austin objected, Cardy responded, "Don't spew populist foolishness and I won't reply to it. That's the best deal I can offer you."
The bill would give Cardy's department the power to collect personal information for an online registry of daycares.
Despite the often contentious rhetoric, no MLAs voted against the bill at the end of the meeting. The approval vote sends it back to the full legislature for final approval.
The registry would work as what Cardy called a "one-stop shop" for parents, who could use it to look for available spaces in their area, register their children and calculate whether they're eligible for financial support.
Bill would allow collection of personal information
The bill allows the department to collect personal information for the registry and cites a definition in the Right to Information and Protection of Privacy Act.
That statute defines "personal information" as including a person's religion, ethnic origin, education, sexual orientation, fingerprints, blood type, personal opinions and political belief. Opponents have seized on those categories to accuse the bill of overreach.
But the bill also allows regulations to limit which categories of information can be collected. It also restricts who the information can be shared with, limiting it to the Health Department and the operator of a daycare where someone's child is registered.
As Cardy pointed out, the privacy law already limits collection to "only as much personal information about an individual as is reasonably necessary to accomplish the purpose for which it is collected."
We're sitting talking about putting something online, making it easier for parents to find child-care spaces. I mean, good grief, how could that possibly be controversial? - Dominic Cardy, education minister
The only information that would be shared through the registry would be names, addresses, places of work, language preferences and dates of birth, as well as information about a child such as allergies, medications and other special requirements, Cardy said.
Cardy introduced a similar bill in the last legislature, but it died on the order paper when last year's provincial election was called.
Both the Liberals and the People's Alliance had supported that version of the bill "with substantially no changes at all, without amendment or qualification or question," Cardy said.
Opposition bowing to anti-vaccination activists, Cardy says
He said they are now pandering to anti-vaccination activists who had "led the fight" against the online child-care registry bill.
"This is not exciting stuff," Cardy told Austin. "We're sitting here talking about putting something online, making it easier for parents to find child-care spaces. I mean, good grief, how could that possibly be controversial?"
"The only thing that changed [since the earlier version of the bill] is that a bunch of people with time on their hands and misinformation filling their brains filled your inbox, and you changed your vote."
Last year, the minister feuded with anti-vaccination groups over a bill to make vaccinations mandatory for school children. That bill went down to defeat in a free vote.
On Wednesday, Cardy said the same activists are now claiming the child-care registry is part of a secret plan to make COVID-19 vaccinations mandatory.
"I fully, without condition, support opposition questioning of government bills," Cardy said.
"What I call into question in a time of instability, when faith in institutions is being questioned, is members of an opposition party who should know better choosing to try to throw aspersions on a system in the pursuit of cheap political opportunism."
Cardy's behaviour 'appalling,' opponents say
Bourque called Cardy thin-skinned and said his behaviour during the meeting was "appalling."
"In general this bill is good, but it's called clarification," Bourque said. "We are asking for these clarifications."
Austin also shot back at Cardy.
"What's the point of this political tirade?" Austin said. "You spent all this time supposedly in these other countries fighting for democracy," he added, referring to Cardy's human rights work overseas.
"This is the way it works. … It's no reason to get all wound up and defensive."
After more than two hours of questioning Cardy, Bourque introduced two amendments to limit the scope of the information the province could collect.
The PC majority voted down the first one, but Cardy said the second one didn't substantially change the bill.
He supported it, adding an amendment of his own to reconcile the Liberal amendment with other sections of the legislation.