N.B. leaders spar over language, pandemic politics during CTV News roundtable
HALIFAX -- Four of New Brunswick’s party leaders sparred over leadership styles, pandemic politics, the economy and campaign promises during a roundtable discussion Thursday evening.
The leaders of New Brunswick’s four political parties represented in the last legislature took part in the virtual event hosted by CTV Atlantic’s senior anchor, Steve Murphy.
The roundtable focused on the following themes: governance and leadership, the COVID-19 pandemic, the economy and budget, and policy and promises.
CTV News included questions submitted or inspired by viewers.
New Brunswickers will head to the polls to vote for a new leader on Monday.
GOVERNANCE AND LEADERSHIP
When asked why New Brunswickers should vote in favour of a Liberal majority government when they wouldn’t give Brian Gallant’s Liberals a majority two years ago, party leader Kevin Vickers pointed to leadership and took aim at Progressive Conservative Leader Blaine Higgs for calling an election during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Leadership isn’t calling a reckless and unneeded and unwanted election in the middle of a pandemic,” said Vickers.
“Leadership is about having a bold vision, a bold idea, and I am going to be transforming the economy of our province and ensuring that we have a healthy economy that’s going to fund our programs such as health and education."
Vickers said he plans to transform New Brunswick’s economy by focusing on three sectors: technology, the green economy and small modular nuclear reactors.
He called small modular nuclear reactors a “once-in-a-generation opportunity” that could create up to 10,000 direct jobs and 40,000 indirect jobs.
Higgs defended his performance as premier, stating that leadership is about having a plan, and insisting his government has worked with others to put plans into action. He also accused Vickers of making campaign promises “in the back of the bus.”
“We’re seeing momentum right now. Leadership is about being a facilitator, it’s about getting people involved in solutions rather than say, ‘Look, I have all the solutions,’” said Higgs. “I’m the first to admit, we have opportunities to be better in the system and it starts right in the campaign.”
Higgs also said he is committed to being “completely transparent” moving forward.
Meanwhile, Green Leader David Coon said he is ready to sit down and speak with whoever is elected premier on Monday.
As for his leadership style, Coon said he takes a “collegial approach” and is focused on listening to and engaging with New Brunswickers -- something he said he doesn’t see in the other leaders.
“That’s the way I would operate as premier, but what I’ve seen with the others is that they’re not engaging,” said Coon.
He accused Higgs of failing to listen to the province’s Acadian and Indigenous communities, saying his leadership style leaves people behind.
“He’s definitely not listening to either of those communities and therefore he’s always taking this position of, here’s what I want to do and you either sign on and agree with me -- that’s his idea of collaboration -- or you take the other road,” said Coon.
Higgs shot back, saying he is proud of his relationship with the Acadian and Indigenous communities.
But Coon pressed Higgs, questioning why he hasn’t called an inquiry into system racism in the justice and policing system after two Indigenous people were shot and killed by police in June.
Higgs responded that a number of public inquiries related to Indigenous issues have already been conducted over the past 25 years, and 797 recommendations have been made, but only 20 have been implemented. Instead of calling another inquiry, he said it’s time to put those recommendations into action.
Coon said he would work to find common ground with Higgs if he is re-elected, especially when it comes to issues like health care.
However, he accused Higgs of failing to implement any of the health-care reforms included in his platform during the last election.
“Instead, he tried to implement some things that were not that the health authorities brought to him that were just so tone deaf to the realities on the ground because of the concentration of power and decision-making in Fredericton, in the central health authorities and in the premier’s office,” said the Green leader.
In response, Higgs listed off some of his government’s accomplishments, pointing out the PCs have brought in 18 nurse practitioners, opened 14 walk-in medical clinics and removed billing numbers.
Turning to the topic of minority governments and keeping the People’s Alliance in the legislature, party leader Kris Austin said it’s better if one party isn’t calling “all the shots.”
“I know we have opposition, but all opposition can do is simply point out the issues that they take with it,” he said. “But they’re really powerless to do anything. But in a minority government, as we’ve seen over the last two years, opposition parties like ourselves were able to pull government back and were able to push government forward in areas where they need to be pushed forward.”
Austin said his party is ready to hold the government accountable and provide stability.
“I don’t trust any of them to do it on their own, whether it’s Mr. Higgs or Mr. Vickers or anyone else,” he said. “Anybody with all the power is going to do what their hidden agenda calls in to do.”
However, he did say he will work with anyone who is willing to sit down to “discuss reasonable, rationale approaches to the issues and challenges” New Brunswickers face.
Meanwhile, Vickers said his party is not willing to form a minority government with the People’s Alliance due to their views on French language rights.
Vickers, Coon and Austin each blasted Higgs for calling a provincial election during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Vickers called the decision an “opportunistic power grab” in the hopes of claiming a majority government and accused Higgs of having a secret agenda.
“In the middle of a pandemic he decided to take a chance on New Brunswick,” said the Liberal leader. “Mr. Higgs has a secret agenda people, and I tell you we need to be on top of this … things are going to be much worse if you decide to re-elect this man as your premier.”
Austin questioned why Higgs agreed in March that municipal elections should not go ahead in the spring because of the pandemic -- only to later call a provincial election.
“At the end of the day. Mr. Higgs had options. He’s trying to fool the people … try to help people understand, erroneously, that this was a necessary call and it’s all about stability,” said the People’s Alliance leader.
“That makes no sense whatsoever. The whole thing is a joke. We should not be in the middle of an election right now. It’s nothing but political opportunity, and to heck with public safety.”
Coon agreed, saying there was no need to call the election, and accusing Higgs of defaulting to “my way or the highway” when making decisions.
“He keeps saying he’s got a plan to save New Brunswick but he won’t tell us what it is, and if it was written before the pandemic, it’s not worth the paper it wasn’t written on,” said the Green leader.
Higgs defended the decision, stating that he wanted to call the election now, when COVID-19 cases are low, to avoid having to call one during a possible second wave.
“Because we saw that happen when the wave was just starting, when both the Greens, and particularly Kevin Vickers and his team, were not prepared to support the government,” said Higgs. “There was no security, there was no stability.”
However, Vickers said he wrote Higgs a letter, guaranteeing that the Liberals wouldn’t cause the government to fall during the pandemic.
“Higgs had a choice. He had a clear choice but he decided to put politics before the people,” he said.
Higgs said his party is taking all the appropriate health measures on the campaign trail, noting that his candidates are not knocking on doors, unlike some candidates for other parties.
“If politicians are going to ignore the rules then it really doesn’t matter what we do because they’re not going to follow the rules anyway,” he said. “My purpose here is that we can do this safely.”
On cancelling municipal elections, Higgs said they were supposed to be held in the spring at the height of the pandemic, and said they could potentially be held in the fall if case numbers remain low, but acknowledged that municipalities may not want to hold elections at this time.
Turning to the topic of a COVID-19 vaccine, Coon said he would “absolutely” support making the vaccine mandatory when it becomes available, even though his party withheld support for Bill 11 back in June.
The controversial bill would have required children in public schools and licensed daycare facilities to provide proof of immunization unless they had an exemption signed by a medical professional. Non-medical exemptions are currently accepted.
“The difference with COVID-19 is there’s no immunity in the population so there cannot be exemptions for the COVID-19 vaccine,” he said. “And, in fact, we’re going to have to go further and suggest people are going to have to show proof of vaccination to attend those kinds of events and public spaces where there’s the greatest risk of spreading that infection.”
Austin also refused to support Bill 11, and wouldn’t commit to supporting a mandatory COVID-19 vaccine without exemptions, saying he believes the current system is working.
“If the system’s not broke, don’t try to fix it,” said the People’s Alliance leader.
He also said he believes most people will get the vaccine if it has been approved and they trust it is safe.
As for when New Brunswick should open up to provinces outside the Atlantic region, Vickers said it has to happen at some point to help the economy, but that he and his party will always follow the advice of Dr. Jennifer Russell, the province’s chief medical officer of health.
Austin agreed that New Brunswick can’t allow the economic fallout to continue, but said he would like to see infection rates down in other parts of the country first before opening up.
ECONOMY AND BUDGET
The first question in this round went to Coon, who said his party will focus on community-led development.
The Green leader said he’s impressed by the enthusiasm, energy and ideas he sees among those working to develop businesses and social enterprises in local communities.
“What we need to do is support those folks with the right policies and the right financial arrangements,” said Coon.
He said he would like to see New Brunswick become more food-secure and energy-secure by producing more food and taking better advantage of the renewal energy resources available in the province.
“We’re talking about reducing imports and replacing them with things we can produce here instead, to keep the money circulating in our economy and creating real community wealth,” said Coon.
When questioned what it would cost taxpayers to turn his ideas into reality, Coon insisted there are opportunities for economic development when it comes to renewable energy, and some, such as wind power, have “absolutely no cost.”
“It’s cheaper than any other option out there and certainly way cheaper than the expensive nuclear power that both Mr. Higgs and Mr. Vickers are promoting,” said Coon.
But Austin questioned his strategy, stating that “windmills is not going to change the economic situation in New Brunswick.”
The People’s Alliance leader also took aim at the government’s investments in economic development, claiming a large portion of the money goes to corporate handouts without real tracking of how many jobs are created.
“What I’d like to see is, instead of just kind of willy-nilly handing out this money to big corporations, let’s take the same amount of money and let’s start lowering taxes so that everybody can benefit,” suggested Austin.
“We need much more bolder action, and tax reform is that bold action that I’m convinced will help businesses here succeed and get businesses from outside the province to come into New Brunswick.”
When asked about balancing the budget, Austin said he doesn’t believe New Brunswick needs to balance the budget during the pandemic.
“We do need to get there, but realistically I think it’s just not reasonable to say we’re going to do that during the pandemic.”
Meanwhile, Vickers said he is committed to not raising taxes, and would instead focus on growth and investment.
“What we really have to do is really transform our economy and raise those revenues so that we are able to finance our programs such as health and education and all these important things,” said the Liberal leader.
He reiterated that he would focus on technology, the green economy and small nuclear modular reactors, and said his team would be “aggressive” in attracting companies in those sectors around the world to New Brunswick.
“We’re going to put Fredericton and Moncton and the other communities with a technology imprint back on the map,” said Vickers.
But Coon questioned why Vickers wants to look outside of New Brunswick to help grow the economy.
“What we’re hearing from Mr. Vickers is what we’re hearing from Mr. Higgs is that they don’t believe in New Brunswickers,” said Coon. “We have tremendous creativity, tremendous ideas and we’ve got to stop government from stifling those and stamping them down.”
Turning to the topic of cuts in health-care services, Higgs said New Brunswick is facing serious challenges, but promised that emergency rooms would remain open 24 hours.
Higgs was criticized earlier this year over a decision to close ERs overnight in six community hospitals, prompting him to cancel the closures.
While ERs will remain open full-time, Higgs said some changes will have to be made to improve the current health-care system.
“Anyone that suggests doing nothing is acceptable is not living in the real world,” said the PC leader.
However, he admitted he doesn’t have any specific plans in mind at this time, saying he will rely on health authorities and health-care professionals to inform his decisions.
Coon said he would give authority back to local hospitals and create community health boards, while Austin said he would prefer to see one health authority operating under one system.
POLICY AND PROMISES
Much of this round focused on language and bilingualism, producing a heated discussion among the leaders.
Austin has been criticized for making language fairness a top policy issue during the global pandemic.
When questioned as to whether he truly believes New Brunswick’s financial woes are due to linguistic duality, or if he is simply “playing to his base,” Austin replied that he never said language issues are fully to blame, but that they can’t be ignored.
"Here we are in a province struggling to recruit nurses, struggling to pay for equipment and struggling to get doctors in here and at the same time we're keeping afloat two health authorities in a population the size of 750,000 people," Austin said.
"I believe you can have one bilingual health authority where you don't have that competition of resources to save money and reinvest it on the front lines."
However, Austin wasn’t sure how much money could be saved by creating one bilingual health authority.
Vickers said the language issue has split the province, calling it a “bitter, divisive” conservation, and he wants to bring it back together.
He also accused Austin and Higgs of having similar views on language.
“Kris Austin says exactly what Blaine Higgs thinks,” said Vickers. “What we really have to do here is come together as a province, realize that bilingualism is a strength.”
But Higgs refuted that claim, saying Austin does not speak for him, and instead accused the Liberal party of taking advantage of voters in northern New Brunswick and exploiting the division.
“They thrive by the language divide because it splits our province,” said Higgs. “We aren’t split by language issues, we’re split by a party that wants to try to maintain power at any cost.”
Higgs said he would not eliminate duality in healthcare if he wins a majority government.
Meanwhile, Austin accused both the Liberals and PCs of sticking their heads in the sand and shying away from the conversation because it’s controversial.
“New Brunswickers want to talk about this, Francophone and Anglophone alike, and find some common ground to ensure that bilingualism is implemented in a fair and rational way,” he said.
As for Coon, he said there is much more work to be done to recognize the equality of the two official linguistic groups, calling “duality the basis of equality in New Brunswick.”
Specifically, he said the Greens are committed to ensuring seniors can live in long-term care facilities where they will be offered service in their official language, and ensuring New Brunswick welcomes a significant number of Francophone immigrants, along with Anglophone immigrants, to maintain a balance in the province.
To end the discussion, each leader was asked to present an idea on how they plan to grow New Brunswick’s population.
Vickers said New Brunswick has to promote and sell itself to the world, noting the reasonable cost of living, and calling it a welcoming place where people can work in collaboration.
Coon said people will want to move to New Brunswick if the province tackles issues like climate change and moves towards becoming a net-zero carbon society.
Higgs said growing the population is all about attracting families to the province and getting them to stay. He said there is momentum in New Brunswick now, and there’s an opportunity to keep it going.
For Austin, the issue is simple -- it’s about creating jobs and growing the economy. He said New Brunswick can’t have a thriving economy while businesses are being taxed out of “any profit they can make” and believes lower taxes and deregulation will bring people to the province.