It’s been a tense week in Canadian politics and with all the proper attention being paid to the Wet’suwet’en protests around the country, other big news has happened with far less notice than normally would be the case. One of those stories revolves around minority government, something that Ottawa is just getting re-acquainted with again. But many seem to forget that Ottawa isn’t the only capital to house a minority Parliament these days. In fact we’ve got three others, in British Columbia, Prince Edward Island and New Brunswick, with each of those parliaments dealing with unique and historic situations about their formations.
In BC we have the NDP in a supply agreement with the Greens, which has seemed to work well to date but we’ll see if the events of this week have any effect on that. On PEI, it’s the Progressive Conservatives leading with the Official Opposition Greens and third place Liberals, an order that is a first in the history of that province. But it’s the situation in New Brunswick that is especially historic, not only for it’s make up but for the math. It’s the Progressive Conservatives of Blaine Higgs who lead there, basically holding on by a single seat, with the Official Opposition Liberals a seat behind & both the Greens and right-wing People’s Alliance with three seats a piece. In a province that’s rarely seen more than one single third-party MLA in a single legislature, they’ve got six between two parties this time and all their votes crucial.
Needless to say that the situation in New Brunswick is really complicated when it comes to how much longer that thing may last but for everyone worried about what might happen with the relatively stable minority in Ottawa, this weeks news from out east should be a primer on what not to do as government in a minority and on how a single policy misstep can have big consequences. What is that misstep you might be asking? This here:
In an attempted budget cutting move, the NB PC’s decided they would reduce the hours of emergency departments in six rural hospitals, basically ensuring they wouldn’t take patients between 10 pm and 8 am, a time of day when everything else is closed and you’d think you’d need emergency rooms. That would force people living in these areas to go further to get emergency care, at that very moment that every single minute counts the most. As you can imagine, this has gone over like a lead balloon with the public and brought this reaction from the Legislature itself:
Okay, that’s par for the course so far, right? All the other Opposition parties are against this and are threatening to take the whole thing down at the first opportunity. It should be noted that these changes won’t require a vote of the legislature to make happen, so that opportunity will be something else. The Liberals are talking about a non-confidence motion, but we’ll see what will come there. But that’s not the full extent of the opposition to this move, and this is where this story really starts to jump off:
Not just two members of the government opposing this and won’t support it, but the Deputy Premier of the province just resigned as a result of it. And in the video of his press conference there, he talks about being intimidated by Premier Higgs and about how he was going to be punished for representing his constituents. Unsurprisingly, Gauvin is being looked upon quite favourably right now as he’s taken a position of principle, but this leave this government in a historically bad position. Firstly, as CBC’s Jacques Poitras points out, this seems to be the first time in at least a century there has been no francophone minister in a New Brunswick cabinet. That, in Canada’s only officially bilingual province, a place where the issues between English and French are especially sharp and important. That’s bad by itself. But add to that the other angle of watching this government self-destruct around something that was completely of their own doing. Imagine the NB PC’s going into a campaign fought around this issue, weakened as a caucus and facing the full wrath of the electorate. That’s a recipe for a big loss.
And for me the most amazing thing about this is that it’s happened at all. The rule of thumb of working in a minority Parliament is that you don’t do big moves in policy, moves that are clearly going to be unpopular with the public, unless you’ve got the votes and support to back it up. In this case, that starts with your own caucus but that also involves at least one other party. From everything that’s come out this week, it seems that Premier Higgs and the team around him didn’t do that at all and as a result, he’s walked himself into the kind of peril that could easily involve him being out of the Premier’s office in a matter of weeks and months, having triggered an election and far from being on his own terms.
Simply put, this should be example A of how not to govern in a minority and something tells me that the defections and consequences aren’t done yet. The reaction of the public to a move like this was predictable as Hell, as was the pressure that would put on the MLA’s of all parties. That should have been clear to this Premier before he did yes, yet given everything that’s happened this week, that doesn’t seem to be the case. We’ll see what comes of this and what the ultimate price that is paid for this bad gaffe of a decision by Premier Blaine Higgs. But this episode should serve as a lesson to everyone else working through a minority Parliament and serve as a prime example of what not to do when governing in a minority.