N.B. prof says Tory backtrack on ER closures could prompt early election
FREDERICTON -- The New Brunswick government's backtrack this week on health-care reforms has damaged the image of Premier Blaine Higgs and his minority Tory government, a local political scientist says.
Donald Wright with the University of New Brunswick said Tuesday that Higgs's reputation as a "steady, competent fiscal manager" is at risk and an early election could be coming.
"Suddenly this has blown up in his face. He has retreated in the face of politics, and he looks weak," Wright said.
Higgs announced late Sunday he was cancelling next month's planned overnight closures of emergency departments in six community hospitals. The move was part of a plan to address a shortage of human resources in the province's health-care system, as well as its aging population.
But Higgs said there were too many gaps in the proposal and the two regional health authorities advised him to put it on hold.
Instead, the premier will visit the six communities and convene a health summit in June.
Health Minister Hugh Flemming defended Higgs on Tuesday, saying he put the affected people before politics.
"Those people are entitled to a fair understanding and a fair level of communication from their premier as to what this is about," the minister said.
"Blaine Higgs is a big enough man that he didn't put his brand before what he believed was the right thing to do."
Flemming said the changes weren't communicated well, but he wouldn't lay blame on the health authorities or government staff.
Liberal Leader Kevin Vickers said Tuesday his party would vote against next month's provincial budget and try to defeat the minority government.
"We will not support this budget, given the gross incompetence shown by this government in the last week," Vickers said.
Vickers said Higgs is blaming others and throwing top bureaucrats "under the bus."
He said he'd recall Liberal member Daniel Guitard from his role as Speaker, if needed, to have the numbers to defeat the government on the budget vote expected March 20.
Even with Guitard back on the Liberal benches, the outcome would hinge on the votes of three Green members, three People's Alliance members and one Independent.
Wright said all the parties will be staking their positions ahead of the budget, which is set to be unveiled March 10.
"Everybody will be retreating into their caucuses trying to read the tea leaves and trying to make the best situation possible for their electoral success," Wright said.
Green Leader David Coon issued a statement Tuesday, saying it is a defining moment for health care in New Brunswick and calling on both major party leaders to release detailed proposals.
"The system is in crisis. Instead of playing politics, Mr. Vickers needs to show us his plan. Premier Higgs needs to present his full plan," Coon wrote.
People's Alliance Leader Kris Austin said he also wants to see the budget, but he may not be able to continue supporting the government on confidence votes.
"We haven't seen the budget and I want to be open-minded to what those numbers are in the budget, but I can tell you my confidence in government certainly has been shaken," he said.
"I think at the end of the day it's going to be up to the electorate to decide."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 18, 2020.