Majority win has shifted dynamic for Higgs government

·5 min read

It took just three short, coronavirus-disrupted weeks in the New Brunswick legislature this fall to demonstrate how much has changed for Premier Blaine Higgs since the 2020 provincial election.

Previously contentious bills sailed through debate to become law. Dissenting MLAs were no longer a concern. Motions designed to embarrass the government were brushed aside.

All thanks to the majority that Higgs won after a risky, early election call in August.

"The function of having more votes is that it's easier to win votes," said Education Minister Dominic Cardy.

That means none of the calibrating and conceding we saw when the Progressive Conservatives governed with just 22 of 49 legislative seats.

With 27 MLAs, they now have the numbers to put Higgs's imprint on the government.

No delays, no detours, no drama

One example: a bill to give arbitrators the latitude to consider a municipality's ability to pay when ruling on wage increases for unionized police officers and firefighters.

Introduced on Dec. 8, the bill cleared second reading and committee review a week later and was passed into law and received royal assent Friday.

"We campaigned on it," Higgs said in a year-end interview with CBC News. "It had to be addressed."

But until Higgs had a majority in the legislature, he couldn't address it.

He tried last year. An earlier version of the bill was introduced in November of 2019, but with unions crying foul and opposition parties unwilling to endorse it, the government sent it off to a special ad hoc committee that soon reached a stalemate.

This fall there were no delays, no detours and no drama.

"Bill 21 would not have passed with a minority government," said New Brunswick Police Association executive director Bob Davidson. "That shows that when you get a majority government, you can put through what you like."

CBC News file photo
CBC News file photo

Disagreements exposed minority-government fragility

Earlier this year, the fragility of a minority government became clear when Sussex-Fundy-St. Martins PC MLA Bruce Northrup said he would vote against the budget, and deputy premier Robert Gauvin quit the cabinet and the caucus, over planned hospital reforms.

"My vote is big, because everybody's vote is big," Gauvin said.

Higgs withdrew the changes before a key budget that might have toppled his government.

Though he's promised to not revive the plan, it would be easy for him to do so now that one or two unhappy MLAs would not be enough to jeopardize his hold on power.

Earlier this month, Fundy-The Isles-Saint John West PC MLA Andrea Anderson-Mason criticized the government's approach to rural broadband as too slow.

Higgs brushed off her comments as "sour grapes," suggesting Anderson-Mason was venting her frustration at being left out of cabinet.

Radio-Canada
Radio-Canada

One or two disgruntled MLAs no longer a threat

He later told reporters he was frustrated she didn't bring her concerns to him first but would not apologize.

"I'm not going to belabour this," he said. "I said what I said, and she said what she said, and it's over."

Higgs was not as dismissive a year earlier, describing tensions between Anderson-Mason and Cardy over a mandatory vaccine bill as healthy.

"We do have a diverse group," he said in December 2019. "We have a passionate bunch, and there's nothing wrong with passion. … I know that they're pushing to do what they believe is right."

At the time, Anderson-Mason was a minister questioning a government bill, a much more serious matter than a backbencher advocating for her riding.

But her vote is less pivotal now than it used to be.

Mike Heenan/CBC
Mike Heenan/CBC

Majority renders some motions dead on arrival

The premier's larger majority caucus also helps him avoid even symbolic defeats.

In May 2019, MLAs from the three opposition parties ganged up to vote 25-21 to pass a non-binding motion calling on the PCs to send a wage dispute with nursing home workers to binding arbitration.

The motion had no legal weight and the government ignored it, but it gave opponents plenty of ammunition.

Now such motions are virtually dead on arrival. In the past two weeks, the PC majority was able to gut two of them, one calling for a public inquiry on systemic racism and another demanding that surgical abortions at Clinic 554 be funded by Medicare.

In both cases, the Tories used their majority to pass amendments that weakened the motions.

Green Party leader David Coon said the risk for Higgs is that he'll now consider himself immune to public opinion.

CBC News file photo
CBC News file photo

'Our own members keep us accountable': Higgs

"Whenever a premier has a majority government, there is a temptation to start to regard the legislative assembly as a rubber stamp," said Coon, who suggests that giving more independence to legislative committees would mitigate that.

Higgs said there's not much risk an unchecked PC majority will lose touch with public opinion.

"There isn't any scenario where we're going to throw caution to the wind here," Higgs said. "Our own members keep us accountable as well. … I don't see any issue that we won't still have a very accountable process."

Cardy said the continuation of the all-party committee on COVID-19 and co-operation on some other bills shows that the PCs won't steamroll the opposition.

But neither will Higgs squander the opportunity he now has to make changes he's been wanting to make for years, but that weren't possible until now.

"We're getting ramped up again … and getting our plans ready for departments, so it's business with a focus. That's where we are right now," the premier said.

"With a majority, we've got a four-year window to get on it."