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N.B. legislature wraps up before election with tense exchanges and emotional speeches

FREDERICTON — The New Brunswick legislature wrapped up its work on Friday for what was expected to be the last time before the provincial election, with campaign-style statements from party leaders offering a taste of what's to come in the weeks and
New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs delivers the State of the Province speech in Fredericton, N.B., on Thursday, Jan. 25, 2024. The final session of the New Brunswick legislature before the fall election wrapped up with campaign-style statements from party leaders and members, advice and encouragement from those leaving and gratitude laced with emotion for those behind the scenes who lend a helping hand. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Stephen MacGillivray

FREDERICTON — The New Brunswick legislature wrapped up its work on Friday for what was expected to be the last time before the provincial election, with campaign-style statements from party leaders offering a taste of what's to come in the weeks and months ahead.

Premier Blaine Higgs and Liberal Opposition Leader Susan Holt had tense exchanges during question period on a variety of subjects, including the nearly $174 million spent on travel nurses that a recent auditor general's report said was partly mismanaged.

Holt told Higgs to "check his memory because it's failing him," reminding the premier that the auditor's travel nurse investigation was sparked by a Globe and Mail report, not a government request as the premier suggested.

Higgs shot back, saying Holt's remarks were an "act of desperation" because a recent poll by Halifax-based Narrative Research indicated the Liberals' lead over the Progressive Conservatives was closing.

The poll showed Liberal support at 37 per cent, Tory support at 34 per cent, and the Green Party in third with 13 per cent.

"What we're witnessing here is a leader of the opposition in distress," Higgs said. "We're seeing personal attacks on me about what I can remember and what I can't remember."

Higgs and his party head into the summer break after 12 of his cabinet ministers said they wouldn't run for re-election, with some of them criticizing his leadership. The provincial election must be held by Oct. 21.

The Tories who won't be running again are former cabinet ministers Arlene Dunn, Trevor Holder, Jake Stewart, Gary Crossman, Daniel Allain, Jeff Carr, Dorothy Shephard, Andrea Anderson-Mason, Bruce Fitch, Mike Holland, Ross Wetmore, and Dominic Cardy, who finished the session as an Independent after he was kicked out of the party for resigning as education minister and publicly criticizing Higgs.

Higgs told reporters that some of the members had planned their retirement before the end of the session. Others, he said, had a falling out "directly related" to the policy on sexual orientation and gender identity in schools, known as Policy 713. Announced last year, the policy requires nonbinary and trans students to get parental consent before teachers can use their preferred names and pronouns.

"It hasn't been easy," the premier said. "It's been a difficult year because there's always a tenseness in the caucus meetings."

But he said most caucus members agreed with the policy. "We had the majority of our caucus — 85 per cent — that was prepared and wanted to move forward."

Holt said the premier's focus this session has been "all over the map," listing some of the low points, such as Policy 713, and the recent travel nurse contract controversy.

"I mean, it's been incredible to see members of government voting with their feet and leaving the premier and leaving their positions as ministers and as members of legislative assembly in numbers like we've never seen before," Holt said.

She said she feels people of New Brunswick want change and stability, a desire she said will be reflected next election when they vote Higgs out.

Green Leader David Coon said the low point of the session was the premier deciding "to be a one-man show in running government."

"That's taken us to terrible places, undemocratic. His leadership approach is certainly the low point."

Jeff Carr, who was shuffled out of cabinet for breaking ranks with Higgs on Policy 713, said his departure wasn't just the sexual orientation and gender identity issue but "about following process and making decisions with the team."

There are "factions" of the party that are still Progressive Conservative, he said, adding there is still hope.

The people who haven't left the party, Carr said, "know how to campaign."

Environment Minister Mike Holland gave an impassioned 13-minute farewell speech in the legislature, asking leaders to select candidates who show immense passion to serve the public. The price of admission for a potential candidate is that they want to make New Brunswick better, he said.

"But you can't stop there. You have to look at them and say, 'what is it that keeps you up at night if you don't get done and (that) you need to do to get elected? What is it that will bring tears to your eyes if you're not in the pursuit of making it happen? And what is it that you're so passionate about that you need to run to be elected so that you can make a difference.'"

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 7, 2024.

Hina Alam, The Canadian Press

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