Opposing during COVID: How New Brunswick's 3 opposition parties are holding government to account

The leaders of New Brunswick's three opposition parties say they're finding a way to hold the government to account on COVID-19 -- even as they are brought into the decision-making process behind closed doors.

The Liberal, Green and People's Alliance leaders have been meeting almost daily with Premier Blaine Higgs and key ministers as part of an unusual, ad-hoc committee overseeing the province's handing of the outbreak.

It's a new and potentially awkward arrangement that has muted the conventional kind of criticism normally seen in partisan politics.

"On the one hand we can easily criticize, but on the other hand when we're sitting at the table, helping make these decisions, it kind of takes away from that criticism," says Alliance Leader Kris Austin.

But so far there has been nothing to criticize, the leaders say.

"It's been very collaborative, it's been very constructive and I think it serves New Brunswick well," says Liberal Leader Kevin Vickers.

New collaboration

Green Leader David Coon added: "I clearly see things that have been brought to me that I've brought forward, that are being addressed. I'm seeing things that I'm proposing being taken on board, and I see results. I see all of my questions being answered honestly." 

Coon says his seat on the committee has also opened up new channels for him to deal with Higgs, ministers and senior officials directly on issues his constituents and others raise with him.

In one case, a deputy minister was on the phone with his staff on a Saturday night to resolve a problem Coon had raised by Monday morning.

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"That, in this way of working, is very different, where officials treat me as they would anyone else on the cabinet committee in terms of me reaching out to them and them responding very quickly," he said. "All the responses are extremely quick." 

The committee meets by conference call every day, usually in the evening for an hour to an hour-and-a-half.

There are briefings by Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Jennifer Russell and by senior civil servants, including Mike Comeau, the deputy minister at the Department of Public Safety, who is helping lead the public service response.

At their first meeting, committee members approved the closure of provincial schools. They also endorsed the declaration of an emergency on March 19.

Partisanship a risk

Political scientist J.P. Lewis of the University of New Brunswick in Saint John says the creation of the committee fits with Higgs's frequent talk of getting the politics out of decisions. "It's simply managing and governing." 

There's also the reality that the COVID-19 outbreak, more than almost any other political issue, affects everyone.

"There'd be a major risk in any partisanship flaring up publicly. I don't think there's any appetite for that. … It's easy to see how there'd be a pause on what we'd expect from responsible government: having a clear mechanism to hold the government to account." 

Question Period is such a mechanism. But with the legislature adjourned indefinitely, it's not available.

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Given Vickers, Coon and Austin have taking cabinet-style oaths but haven't abandoned their party loyalties, "we assume that accountability is happening behind closed doors," Lewis said.

Austin says it is. 

"My main concern was this was going to be window dressing," he said, but that hasn't been the case.

"There's sometimes strong debate that goes on, but that's good. That's what we need in that type of situation: different viewpoints and the ability to express those viewpoints.

"When we come out of those meetings, everybody's on the same page on what needs to be done. It's very impressive." 

Liberals take different approach

Even so, there has been a slight difference of approach by the Liberals, who have been putting out press releases calling for specific government actions.

One release called for help for laid-off workers affected by COVID-19 closures, so they can bridge the gap until they get federal Employment Insurance benefits. The province announced such a program Tuesday.

Vickers also used social media to announce he will ask the committee to look at ways to help homeless shelters, earning replies from two Progressive Conservative cabinet ministers. 

"It's already being addressed," tweeted Environment and Local Government Minister Jeff Carr. "Schools are being opened to provide more open space. But please raise it for an update."

"We are doing considerable work with our community partners and will be happy to update you on this," wrote Social Development Minister Dorothy Shephard.

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Coon didn't comment directly on Vickers raising issues publicly that he can bring up at the committee, but said he's using a different strategy.

"My approach is to go right to the source of the responsibility and deal with it with the official in the department that's relevant, or the premier or the minister … and my experience to date has been nothing but positive." 

Vickers said it's important for opposition parties to still speak up, albeit with a different tone.

"New Brunswickers want to make sure that we're playing a role and playing a constructive role and an encouraging role," he said.

"What's important is the way the message is delivered. It's not being one of criticism, it's being one of encouragement. It's in that spirit that we're bringing messages forward." 

New 'political normal'

Coon says the committee's way of working is what he imagines happens in governments elected under proportional representation systems, where parliamentary majorities are rare and multi-party coalitions are the norm.

It's the kind of collaboration he called for immediately after the 2018 provincial election failed to produce a majority government and he hopes it continues.

Lewis says it's hard to predict if it will. 

"Who knows? But I would imagine whatever normalcy is the next 'political normal,' there will be partisanship again. Parties will fall back into the roles they have in the legislature.

"But because this feels so unprecedented each day, the impact on our political system is really unknown." 

Even Coon acknowledges that in the longer term, more difficult and contentious discussions will likely be unavoidable. 

Whenever the outbreak peaks and starts to decline, the committee will have to talk about how to modify shutdowns and social-distancing directives "so that people can get part of their lives back in some way.

"There might be a lot of differing views in the room once we get to that point, but of course we're nowhere near that."