Higgs faces growing dissent from cabinet on LGBTQ policy review
Premier Blaine Higgs is facing a growing wave of dissent from several of his cabinet ministers over the review of the province's policy on LGBTQ students at school.
Transportation and Infrastructure Minister Jeff Carr is the latest Progressive Conservative to question the rethink of Policy 713, which sets minimum standards for creating safe, inclusive spaces in the education system.
"There are ways to strengthen policies and that's what governments should be here for, to strengthen policies and not take away the rights of marginalized individuals, to not have them live in fear," said Carr, who was sometimes emotional about the issue during a scrum with reporters on Thursday.
Local Government Minister Daniel Allain also weighed in, saying it was "important to keep the policy, not only to keep it, but to strengthen it."
Among the provisions under review is a section that allows students under the age of 16 to adopt new names and pronouns at school without their parents being told.
Higgs has made clear he doesn't like that provision.
Carr avoided criticizing the premier but said all MLAs have "a duty in the community to understand how we as legislators form policy that affect people in our communities."
That includes "students in our schools who oftentimes have nobody to confide in. And it took me a while to understand why they wouldn't go to their families or their parents first," he said.
"So they confide in a teacher, they confide in a guidance counsellor who doesn't judge them right out of the gate."
Other elements of the policy under review allow a student to play on sports teams and use washrooms that align with their gender identity.
Carr said if New Brunswick wants to present itself as "inclusive and welcoming, then we need to walk that walk and talk that talk."
His comments follow a social media post Wednesday from Social Development Minister Dorothy Shephard that pointed out the new Child and Youth Wellbeing Act she brought to the legislature.
It lays out the rights of children receiving social services to take part in decision-making that affects them and guarantees them privacy.
Shephard said those principles should be part of the conversation around the LGBTQ policy.
"Policy 713 creates an opportunity for educators to have safe space, to have respectful and welcoming educational environments. We should want that in our public school system and that's what it does," she told CBC News.
Another cabinet member, Environment Minister Gary Crossman, clicked "like" on Shephard's post on Wednesday but could not be reached for comment Thursday.
And Housing Minister Jill Green said this week that there may be a need for clarity on some sections of the policy but overall the document should be left as is or strengthened.
"I would vote for strengthening it if there was a way of strengthening it," she said. "Kids are our future. … There's always ways to improve things, so I would hope we would improve it."
Last week, Aboriginal Affairs Minister Arlene Dunn said there had been a lack of consultation with LGBTQ groups on the review up until that point.
University of New Brunswick political scientist Donald Wright said the level of dissent from ministers is unusual because the British cabinet form of government treats the cabinet as a single voice.
"It is a case of the government disagreeing with the government," he said.
Policy 713 is a departmental policy document — not legislation and not a cabinet order.
That means MLAs and ministers won't have a vote on any changes.
Carr said it would be hypothetical to discuss what he and other ministers would do if Higgs insisted on making changes to the policy that they don't agree with.
"Inside of that room, we have those open and honest discussions on how policies should be rolled out. Sometimes we don't always win, but we have those discussions," he said.
WATCH | PC cabinet minister 'anxious' over review of Policy 713:
Shephard also said she would press the case internally.
"My power is always around the caucus table and always around the cabinet table. I don't think anyone can say I'm shy about voicing my thoughts and opinions and my research, so that's what I'll do."
Ministers who can't publicly support a government policy or decision would normally be expected to resign, Wright said.
"But Higgs will be feeling the heat," he added. "Politically, it's never good to lose or fire a cabinet minister. And he certainly doesn't want to precipitate a caucus revolt."
Former education minister Dominic Cardy, who quit last fall over proposed changes to French immersion, says there are plenty of reasons why ministers are reluctant to resign.
"You lose a very large chunk of your salary, you lose access to a government car, different benefits," he said.
"But in the end, what's the point of this job? The point of being an elected official is to serve the people of the province."
A wave of departures could either force Higgs back to the more moderate style he adopted early in his term or push him out, Cardy said.
"The more people who leave, the clearer the message is," he said.
"If he loses more ministers at this point, it's pretty clear that his time isn't just coming to an end. It's done."
Carr said the outcome of the review is still up in the air.
He said it began as the fielding of some questions and requests for clarifications, "and now it's turned much more than it should be."
But the debate may be an opportunity for politicians to better understand marginalized communities, he said.
"I feel there is a path forward here. I feel that if it was a done deal, it would have been done by now," he said.
Higgs has faced cabinet and caucus dissent before, saying during those episodes that his PC MLAS are "a diverse group" and no premier has ever had the full backing of their team on every issue.
"I know that they're passionate. I know that they're pushing to do what they believe is right," he said in December 2019.
"At the end of the day we have to balance that with the greater good and the greater consensus, and that's my job."
Higgs released a statement Thursday saying the policy had been discussed with caucus and until Education Minister Bill Hogan has finished the review, "we will not comment any further."