The Liberal government has agreed to ban corporate and union donations to political parties, effective June 1.
Cabinet minister Victor Boudreau told a legislative committee Thursday afternoon that Liberal MLAs would support a series of five amendments introduced by Opposition Progressive Conservative MLAs.
The committee was debating a Liberal bill that would reduce the maximum donation to a political party from $6,000 to $3,000, a cap that would have applied to individuals, unions and corporations.
But PC Leader Blaine Higgs introduced the first in a series of five amendments that would change the Political Process Financing Act to ban corporate and union donations altogether.
He told reporters that while the party hadn't been advocating such a ban, he decided that since the Liberals were modifying election rules, it was the right time to go ever further.
"I campaigned on changing politics in this province," said Higgs, referring to his leadership campaign last year.
"I campaigned on politics being the single biggest barrier to our provincial success. I've been talking about this for six years. So when bills are put forward, I want to see substance in the bill."
PC fundraiser held last week
Boudreau surprised the committee by announcing the Liberals would vote for the amendments but would make one change of their own: to make the ban effective June 1 instead of after the bill passes.
The Liberals are planning their annual $500-per-ticket fundraising dinner for May 31.
"I think it's only fair … where the leader of the Opposition had his big fundraiser last week," Boudreau said, "[and] ours is coming up in a few weeks, we're going to let those events happen." The PC fundraiser took place March 24.
Higgs had predicted before introducing his first amendment that the Liberals would reject the PC changes.
"Do I think the chances of success are high? No I don't," he said. "But if they're serious, if they really want to change it as they continually say they do, they'll support it."
'Great day for democracy'
The recent report by an independent commission on electoral reform recommended phasing out corporate and union donations after the next election. The Liberals responded at first by saying they'd "consider" that, while reducing the cap for now.
But after Higgs proposed the ban Thursday morning, the Liberals huddled over the noon hour to decide whether to go along with it.
Higgs left Fredericton for a funeral before the Liberals agreed to vote for the amendments and wasn't available for comment on their decision.
Premier Brian Gallant called the all-party consensus "a great day for democracy" and said it will make it clear to New Brunswickers that parties aren't beholden to big business or unions.
After Boudreau announced the Liberals would vote for the PC amendments, they discovered they were written in English only, a violation of the constitutional requirement that all legislation in New Brunswick be introduced in both English and French.
The Liberals offered to have government drafters and translators prepare the amendments properly and bring them back to the committee Thursday evening. The PCs agreed and the changes were passed unanimously.
Green Party Leader David Coon, who called the ban "great news," said it looked like the PCs introduced the amendments without thinking that they would actually pass.
"It kind of felt like an accident, but I'm still trying to process what happened, and I think the Official Opposition may be in the same position."
The amended bill will still have to go through third reading by the legislature before it becomes law.
NDP says personal limit too high
Although interim NDP Leader Rosaire L'Italien welcomed the amendments, he was critical of the way it was handled.
"The timeline for doing this is very arbitrary and self-serving and the roll out was not consultative," he said in a emailed statement. "It's deeply cynical of the Liberals to ban corporate and union donations the day after a big fundraiser with all of their big money friends."
L'Italien also contends the personal contributions limit, while cut in half to $3,000 a year, is still too high — one of the highest in Canada, and double what is allowed for federal political parties.
"This allows wealthy individuals to disproportionately influence the system," he said. The NDP wants to see it lowered to $1,000.