The question of who had the best plan for New Brunswickers was tossed from PC leader Blaine Higgs to Liberal leader Brian Gallant, and back again, as the two leaders squabbled over who had the most experience to lead the province.
The two, along with Green Party leader David Coon, were asked about healthcare, spending, and bilingualism during a leader’s roundtable discussion at St. Thomas University in Fredericton on Thursday night.
“The issue has been the tremendous thirst to spend more money,” Higgs said. “We don’t need to cut services or close hospitals, we just need to stop building things that we don’t need.”
Gallant touted his last four years as the reason why voters should entrust him with the next four years, saying he has a plan that lays out a balanced budget by their third year if re-elected for a second mandate.
“The only time we were in last place for economic growth over the last few years was from 2011 to 2014 when our economy shrank, the only economy in the country to shrink under Blaine Higgs’ cuts,” said Gallant. “Since we’ve been the government from 2015-2018, we’re sixth. I’d like to be higher than that but it’s a lot better than last place.”
“The only person that gives Brian Gallant a high rating is Brian Gallant himself,” Higgs said.
Coon said the fearmongering and negativity is ‘not helpful whatsoever.’
“They’re just talking to their message tracks,” Coon said. “I’m with the auditor general. We need to put a plan in place to manage the debt, let’s get at the bottom of it. And one of those things is to look at whether or not our taxation policy is a just one and whether the big guys are paying their taxes, I don’t think they are.”
Higgs also clarified that he’s not proposing to cut any civil servants.
“I’ve said that we’ll look at every job for its value, and we’ll work through that but no one loses their job,” he said.
During a discussion around healthcare – and how much should be spent – Higgs referred back to his experience working in the private sector.
“I had a job where I had to get results, or else I had to find a new job … we need results for the money being spent,” he said.
To which, Coon fired back:
“Running a government is not like running Irving Oil.”
The leaders agreed on even less when it came to a discussion on bilingualism in the province, specifically a question on whether students should travel on separate school buses based on their language.
“In many parts of the province it would be unsafe, it would be unsafe, for a child who speaks English in a largely Francophone region to have a unilingual Francophone bus driver or vice versa,” said Coon. “Unless you replace the bus drivers with bilingual ones, which I don’t want to see happen, I don’t want people to lose their jobs.”
The language discussion moved to healthcare – and if paramedics should have to be bilingual. Gallant said he’s waiting on a review coming in December on whether paramedics are required to be bilingual.
“In New Brunswick we’re parking ambulances and risking health, that makes no sense,” said Higgs.
The discussion turned to whether each leader would consider working with other parties, if a balance of power was on the table by way of a minority government.
“I will work with anyone who has the best interest of putting our province first and politics second,” said Higgs.
Coon said it would be a discussion among his caucus.
“It’s premature to have that discussion,” he said.
Gallant acknowledged it’s a possibility.
“I think this could very well be a close election. We feel confident about being able to form a majority government but if we were ever to form a majority or a minority we would work with parties that share our values,” he said. “I can tell you right now that Blaine Higgs and the Conservatives would not be among that list; neither would the People’s Alliance.”
Coon said the rise of the third parties in the province is an indication of people’s dissatisfaction with what he called the ‘old parties.’
“They don’t see the old parties as being there for them anymore,” he said.
The Green Party was granted official third party status in the legislature four years ago when David Coon was voted in as MLA for Fredericton South. The leaders were asked if an MLA from any other party was voted into the legislature, would they be given official party status, something Gallant called a hypothetical.
“It would be a case by case because I’m not sure some of the rhetoric that some of the third parties are putting forward is what’s healthy for our province,” he said.
Higgs referred to the legislative policy when it comes to how parties are recognized.
“This results from a vote of the legislative assembly,” said Coon. “So all the members vote on this motion, this wasn’t a gift from Mr. Gallant.”
New Brunswick voters have not re-elected a premier for a second term since Bernard Lord in 2003. Since that time, power has switched from Liberal Shawn Graham, to Conservative David Alward and then Liberal Brian Gallant.