Premier Blaine Higgs said Friday his government will make changes to its bill on essential services in nursing homes to win the support of the People's Alliance and ensure its passage before Christmas.
Higgs said the amendment will add new elements to a section that lays out what an arbitrator must consider when trying to resolve a labour dispute between unionized workers and nursing homes.
"It just looks at additional factors that would be considered, or relevant information," he said.
The most controversial part of the bill would require an arbitrator's ruling to take into account several conditions, including the province's ability to pay for a wage increase.
Higgs said the government's amendment would not be "a material change," though earlier in the day Alliance Leader Kris Austin said he expected the amendment would "kind of balance it out a little bit."
Asked if that would touch on the "ability to pay" provision, Austin told reporters, "You're probably on the right track. … It will open it up a little bit more, how an arbitrator would interpret the legislation."
The Liberals and Greens have already said they will try to amend the bill to eliminate the ability-to-pay condition.
But Higgs said Friday that kind of amendment would gut the bill and he'll consider a vote on that kind of change to be a confidence measure. That means if the PCs lose such a vote he would call an election.
The Alliance has pledged to support the PCs on confidence votes until the spring, but Austin said this week he was losing patience with the province's inaction on an unrelated issue with job classifications for paramedics. He said his party could start voting against PC bills.
The existing law on essential services in nursing homes was struck down by a judge earlier this year. She upheld a labour board ruling that the law was too much of a limit on the right to strike.
But the judge put the effect of her ruling on hold for six months to give the government time to pass a better law. That deadline is Jan. 2.
The Tories introduced that law last month. It creates a new process for designating essential employees and adds a binding arbitration process.
But it also adds conditions that an arbitrator must take into account, including the government's ability to pay for any wage increases.
The premier just wants to get his way and doesn't understand still that this is a minority government and we need to work together. - David Coon, Green Party leader
MLAs debated the bill in second reading Friday afternoon, and it's expected to go to a committee for possible amendments next week — the final week the legislature is scheduled to sit before the Jan. 2. deadline.
On Friday, MLAs voted over Liberal objections to add evening sittings next week so there's enough time to pass the essential-services bill and other key legislation.
"It is very important," Higgs said of the bill. "We will stay in the legislature for whatever time is necessary, because this is the difference between whether our seniors will have care in the new year or whether that care will be in jeopardy."
The Liberals and Greens have accused the government of leaving the legislation for the last minute and bringing other minor bills up for debate first, allowing little time for the four parties in the legislature to seek a compromise.
"It was a deliberate plan by this government all along … to funnel a whole bunch of bills into a small window and bully them through," Liberal MLA Chuck Chiasson said during Friday's second reading debate.
"The premier just wants to get his way and doesn't understand still that this is a minority government and we need to work together," Green Leader David Coon told reporters.
He promised his party would work with the government to get the bill through by Dec. 20 if the ability-to-pay provision was removed.
He said the ability-to-pay clause was "totally unnecessary [and] unrelated" to the rest of the bill, which was designed to address the flaws in the existing law.
With the Liberals and Greens vowing to amend the bill, Coon says its fate is in Austin's hands. "It's really at this point up to the People's Alliance and we're unsure where they stand today."
On Thursday Austin demanded the government reclassify paramedics to recognize their specialized skills.
The move would shift them to a different union and likely increase their pay. The Alliance leader said he might vote against some PC bills if it didn't happen by the end of next week.
But on Friday he said he believes the change, which doesn't require legislation, will happen.
"I think at the end of next week, things will work out," he said. "I'm optimistic."
Meanwhile, union leaders denounced Austin at a news conference, accusing him of being willing to trade the rights of nursing home workers for those of paramedics.
The Alliance leader was "pitting member against member and union against union," said Norma Robinson, the president of Local 1252 of the Canadian Union of Public Employees, which represents paramedics.
Sharon Teare of the New Brunswick Council of Nursing Home Unions said Austin hasn't been consistent, promising to support them but sometimes siding with the Higgs government during the past year's court battles and political jockeying.