Legislature's 'pandemic session' ends with little progress on major PC initiatives

·5 min read
The New Brunswick Legislature wrapped up Friday, ending the latest session, which was marked largely by the COVID-19 pandemic. (Maria Burgos/CBC - image credit)
The New Brunswick Legislature wrapped up Friday, ending the latest session, which was marked largely by the COVID-19 pandemic. (Maria Burgos/CBC - image credit)

The "pandemic session" of the New Brunswick Legislature wrapped up its work for the summer on Friday, with Premier Blaine Higgs saying he's eyeing a more intense burst of activity this fall once COVID-19 is mostly in the past.

The Higgs Progressive Conservatives spent most of the session, which ran from November until this week, grappling with the virus and treading water on major reforms.

"I want to see New Brunswick be reinvented, as we've talked so many times," the premier said in Question Period Friday, using his now-familiar bold rhetoric of change.

But the reality of a legislative agenda weighed down by COVID-19 is that few important initiatives advanced very far.

"There are no quick fixes," said Moncton South PC MLA Greg Turner, "but this government is working on next steps, and I look forward to learning what actions will be taken."

Shane Magee/CBC
Shane Magee/CBC

He was talking about soaring rental rates and housing shortages, but he might well have been referring to the entire Higgs agenda.

The government said Friday it was "accepting" the recommendations of a report on the housing market, but any legislation to implement them would have to wait until the fall.

"I acknowledge there's a lot of work to do," Social Development Minister Bruce Fitch told reporters.

Health reform consultations happened over the winter but there's no sign of any decisions, even as hospitals grapple with disruptive staffing shortages. "The department has no shortage of big issues," said Health Minister Dorothy Shephard.

There's no doubt COVID threw a lot of our timelines into jeopardy - Premier Blaine Higgs

Local government reform was also talked about a lot, but the government will only stake out a position in the fall, with legislation to follow.

"This government has a lot on its plate as to what the fall will bring," People's Alliance leader Kris Austin said Friday morning.

Issues that the PCs didn't choose to put on their agenda, but that ended up there regardless, are also far from resolution.

A required 10-year review of the Official Languages Act geared up, but any amendments to the law won't come until the next session at the earliest. The province launched a study of systemic racism but a report is still a long way away.

"There's no doubt COVID threw a lot of our timelines into jeopardy," the premier told reporters Friday.

"We had an active session, but I'm looking forward maybe to a more active session in the fall."

CBC
CBC

This session was the first since Higgs won a majority government in a mid-pandemic election last summer.

It was interrupted by orange and red phase COVID restrictions last fall that led some MLAs to choose to not leave their health zones to come to Fredericton.

Throughout the session, MLAs haggled over whether to allow hybrid virtual sittings. They were finally approved last month, just in time for 14 MLAs who had to get tested after an exposure notification for the Fredericton hotel where they'd been staying.

The legislature also took the first baby steps toward more significant rule changes to make it easier for women to sit as MLAs.

A committee report tabled Friday recommended several changes, including hybrid sittings and the creation of parental leave policies for elected members "in an effort to normalize work-family balance."

But that, too, has to be studied further before it takes effect.

"There's been nothing groundbreaking, really, in this session," said Moncton Centre Liberal MLA Rob McKee, who noted the housing crunch in Moncton was an issue two elections ago.

"They talk about being a government of action but what we've seen so far since 2018 has been pretty much status quo," he said.

Ed Hunter/CBC
Ed Hunter/CBC

Green Party Leader David Coon said the government has announced "plan after plan after plan" but because the legislature won't be sitting for months, "we're going to miss the opportunity by sitting for so few days to address those plans."

There was some movement in a few areas.

One bill that got royal assent Friday allows for a legal transition out of the province's emergency order, which is expected to end this summer.

Another reduces income tax rates to offset the provincial carbon taxes, a move welcomed by economists who study carbon pricing as a way of fighting climate change.

Royal assent was also given Friday to a bill introduced by Liberal MLA Jean-Claude d'Amours and eventually supported by the PC government that will ban the sale of flavoured vaping products in the province.

It's a rare example of an opposition bill becoming law. "I'm very pleased personally," d'Amours said Friday. "But I'm not thinking about me. I'm thinking how this bill will be positive and good for youth."

The most contentious bill came from Education Minister Dominic Cardy, who amended the Education Act to allow some specially trained teachers with masters degrees to administer tests to certain students to determine if they need personalized learning plans.

The Liberal opposition tried to slow down approval of the bill but abandoned the stalling tactics this week and let it pass third reading.

Higgs said the bill will play a key role in improving mental health services by lightening the workload of school psychologists so they can devote more time to students who most need their help.

The premier says the consultations on health and local government that rumbled along in the background during the pandemic have laid the groundwork for the heavy policy lifting to come over the next 12 months.

"We've been able to prepare better in the meantime," he said.

In a speech to mark the end of the session, Higgs told MLAs that by the time the house returns in November, COVID-19 measures will probably have ended.

That return will take place a couple of weeks earlier than normal to accommodate the volume of bills, Higgs told reporters.

"That was done for a reason," he said. "I expect a very active fall session."