SACKVILLE, N.B. – New Brunswick’s minority government still remains on shaky ground, despite the Progressive Conservatives taking the reins from the Liberals just over two months ago.
Political scientist Mario Levesque said Premier Blaine Higgs not only faces a daunting task in turning the province’s economy around, a promise he made during the election campaign, but also in trying to hold on to his tenuous support from the People’s Alliance, whose three MLAs give the Tories a functioning majority in the legislature.
“Higgs is staying in power simply because he’s giving Kris Austin and the Alliance everything they want,” said Levesque, who teaches at Mount Allison University.
He said the shaky agreement between the PCs and the People’s Alliance is not likely one that will last, insisted Levesque, as Higgs will likely start to grow tired of Austin “nipping at his heels.”
“I just think the demands of the People’s Alliance will become too great and Higgs really has limited cards to play for them now,” he said. “There’s only so many goodies Higgs can give out to them.”
He said he’s unsure of how long the cooperation between the PC’s and the Alliance will last but expects the two parties will at least have each other’s backs until the budget comes out in the spring.
Levesque predicts that to maintain the People’s Alliance support for the budget vote, Higgs may make an attempt to cut the budget of the Official Languages Commissioner and/or merge the office with another department.
“He can rationalize it by saying he’s streamlining government,” he said. “But really it’s just the dilution of it to the point of irrelevancy. I don’t think long term that’s good for the province.”
Levesque said he doesn’t expect Higgs, however, will take any further steps any time soon to try and dismantle bilingualism or language duality in New Brunswick, a move Austin would like him to make.
“Higgs knows that won’t sell at this point in time so he’s going a little bit slower on that.”
And that’s when Austin may start to pull away his support, said Levesque.
“We can go along for a few more months on this cost-cutting adventure and they’ll be happy for a while but then they’re going to want to start to demand more.
“At that point, Higgs will deliberately structure the downfall of his government and then we’ll have an election.”
Levesque said he is not surprised by the alliance between these two parties, as he views the People’s Alliance as simply an “outgrowth of the PC party.” He said many of the People’s Alliance positions stem from the Confederation of Region Party (CoR), which was formed by disgruntled Conservatives in the late 1980s who were upset that Richard Hatfield had supported and promoted official bilingualism. Higgs was one of those members.
“For them to align with each other, they don’t need a formal written agreement or a pact. They already think alike,” said Levesque. “So this could go on for a little bit of time.”
And will that be enough time for Higgs to be the tight-fisted fiscal manager he promised to be when he became premier?
So far, Levesque said Higgs has been doing what he said he was going to do in terms of cost-cutting measures. But whether that’s a good thing or not remains to be seen.
One of Higgs’ first moves as Premier was to cancel and delay a number of infrastructure projects, some of them already under way, ranging from upgrades to the federal courthouse building to highway improvements to new schools.
“And that’s just the tip of the iceberg,” said Levesque. “Wait until the budget comes down and see what he proposes for schools and post-secondary education and the health care sector.”
With a promise to balance the books within two years, Levesque said the big question now becomes what else is he going to chop?
“That means a lot of cuts somewhere,” he said.
Watch for a freeze in funding transfers to post-secondary education as well as privatizing of more services in the health care sector, said Levesque. He also expects further belt-tightening of government programs and services.
With a slew of anticipated cuts coming New Brunswickers’ way, Levesque said he questions why Higgs is only turning to the People’s Alliance for support. He said he finds it strange that a premier in a minority government situation is being so uncooperative with the other two parties.
“That’s just so unusual to see something like that,” said Levesque. “He has no intention of collaborating or cooperating with anybody, period.
“For the life of me, I can’t fathom why he’s doing this,” he said, adding it paints Higgs’ whole party as antagonistic. “It certainly doesn’t make other people want to engage with him.”
Levesque said another election within the next year or two won’t bode well for the Liberal Party, which is currently on the search for a new leader after Gallant announced last month he would be stepping down from the post.
“It’s shaping up not the best for the Liberals right now.”
He said the Liberals will find it challenging to mount a credible campaign against Higgs while they hunt for a new leader and get reorganized.
Levesque did note, however, that this could be good news for the Green Party, who stand a good chance in eating up some of that Liberal support – and providing them with strong potential for growth, maybe not all in the next election but certainly for the following campaign.
The political landscape in New Brunswick has been in turmoil since the Sept. 24 provincial election, which saw the Progressive Conservatives take 22 seats and the Liberals 21. The Green Party and the People’s Alliance each claimed three seats. To form a majority government, a party must secure 25 of the 49 available seats
Premier Brian Gallant, who was the first to take office following the election, was not able to gain the favour of the People’s Alliance or sway enough votes his way and his Liberal government fell after losing a confidence vote on his Throne Speech in early November 2018, opening the door for Blaine Higgs’s Progressive Conservatives to assume a governing role in the province.