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N.B. Tory leader hit from all in debate for calling election during pandemic


FREDERICTON — New Brunswick Progressive Conservative leader and incumbent Premier Blaine Higgs spent much of the first election debate defending his decision to call a snap election and fending off accusations he has a secret plan to cut services.

Higgs, who led a minority government since 2018, argued the province needs political stability as it recovers from the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

"We have a long-term strategy and a vision for this province to not only recover from where we were pre-COVID, but to move well beyond," Higgs said during the 90-minute debate.

He said New Brunswick's economic recovery from COVID-19 is the fastest in the country.

"A majority government over the next four years will ensure we don't get derailed and go back to petty politics."

But Green Leader David Coon questioned Higgs' motive for dissolving the legislature and calling the country's first election campaign since the pandemic began.

"When he says 'stability' he means he doesn't want the democratic process to work," Coon said. "He wants to have a majority government to deliver whatever his secret plan is to save New Brunswick and we don't know what that is."

When the election was called, the standings in the legislature were 20 Tories, 20 Liberals, three Greens, three People's Alliance members and one Independent. Two seats were vacant.

Higgs called for the election three days after the Liberals pulled out of negotiations on a Tory proposal that would have eliminated the possibility of an election until October 2022 or until the end of the pandemic.

Gerald Bourque, leader of the Keep it Simple Solutions party, also questioned Higgs' election call, arguing that if the province's economic recovery was so strong, then there was no need to call voters to the polls.

"Why was the election called?" Bourque asked. "He just got saying again that everything was going good and we were advancing ahead of everybody else."

Liberal Leader Kevin Vickers accused the Tory leader of calling an election in an effort to grab power.

"This is cowardice to run an election, to roll the dice at a window of opportunity," Vickers said.

Higgs lost the trust of citizens when he tried to cut services to rural hospitals, Vickers said.

"In all due respect you lost the trust of New Brunswickers on the health-care file," Vickers told Higgs. "What you proposed was reckless and damaging."

But Higgs said the plan to reduce hours at some rural emergency rooms was a bad plan that was cancelled and won't be revisited.

Higgs said the people of New Brunswick know him. "I'm not a new face here ... people know me. Our province is pulling together like it never did before."

The leaders of the smaller parties warned against electing a majority government, and stressed how good decisions have been made in the minority legislature and the all-party COVID-19 cabinet committee.

"We cannot go back to the old days of one party holding all of the power," People's Alliance Leader Kris Austin said. "Today this is about New Brunswickers, this is about choice, and this is about having your voice in the legislature."

Austin said the two main parties won't address the language issue, and continue to have separate French and English health authorities that compete for resources.

"We cannot go back to the old days of one party holding all the power," Austin said.

Interim New Democrat Leader Mackenzie Thomason said having third parties in the legislature can influence decision-making.

"They are able to keep the big parties' feet to the fire, and they are able to give New Brunswick experienced results," said the 23-year-old whose party had no elected members in the last session. 

Voting day is slated for Sept. 14.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 3, 2020.

Kevin Bissett, The Canadian Press

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