Higgs considers N.B. election call after Liberals reject power-sharing proposal

FREDERICTON — New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs said Friday he will take the weekend to decide whether to call an election after the Opposition Liberals rejected his proposed deal to keep the Tories in power through the pandemic.

Liberal Leader Kevin Vickers said Friday Higgs wielded the threat of a snap election in a bid to have his minority government remain in power until the next fixed election date in 2022.

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"(We were) continually reminded that if we did not come to an agreement he would call an election by the end of ... today, Friday," Vickers told a news conference. "This was a negotiation with a gun to our head and completely unacceptable for myself and our party."

The Liberals left the talks, setting the stage for a possible provincial vote, which would be the first in the country since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Higgs expressed disappointment with the Liberal decision. He said he needs time to consider his next move, but he did nothing to dampen election speculation.

"We will be prepared. We are prepared," he said when asked if his party was ready for a campaign.

"This has made the path forward, I guess one could say, clearer, or one could say more difficult, but I think clearer," Higgs added.

On Monday, Higgs asked the opposition leaders to sign a formal agreement not to trigger an election until September 2022, or no earlier than 30 days after public health officials declare the COVID-19 pandemic over.

"The process that we went through in the last three days was groundbreaking. It was innovative. It was different. Can we find a path to put our province on? I am genuinely disappointed," the premier said Friday.

The Progressive Conservatives and Liberals each have 20 seats in the legislature, while the Greens and the People's Alliance each have three. There are two vacant seats and one Independent.

Vickers said he had already committed to not bringing down the government before next March but was not prepared to accept the "power grab" proposed by the premier.

"It is absolutely irresponsible to consider having an election during a major pandemic," he said, noting that schools will soon be reopening and elderly people have been stressed by COVID-19.

"We were told at the meeting that this was a window of opportunity, and I told them, you do not roll the dice with people's health," Vickers said.

But People's Alliance leader Kris Austin said the Liberals walked out of the meetings before anything was finalized.

"We went in there with good faith. The Liberals had no interest in that as evident in the meetings, as far as I'm concerned," Austin said. "They were looking to sabotage this."

Green Leader David Coon said he went into the meetings skeptical that a deal could be reached but found the premier to be sincere.

"He took quite a creative step here to try and do something that's never been done before. We had fascinating discussions ... but in the end it didn't work," Coon said.

Coon said he hasn't closed the door to further discussions with the premier.

Negotiations between the four parties on the proposed opposition support of Higgs' minority government began Wednesday.

The Tory leader was looking for the formalization of an all-party COVID-19 cabinet committee, offering the other parties a stronger voice in decision-making in exchange for not holding an election.

Higgs had said that if the talks failed, the fall would be an opportunity to hold an election because of the "lull" in the rate of COVID-19 infections in New Brunswick.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 14, 2020.

© Kamsack Times