We’re coming to the end of the Summer and in normal times there would be a usual ramping up of things to come. The return to school, the return of Parliament and in some places depending on the year, upcoming general elections. But as COVID-19 has shown us, we are not in normal times at all. Schools are returning in modified ways or maybe better put in Ontario, in total chaos. Parliament will return in some form in Ottawa, but not likely as normal with 336 MPs crammed into the chamber at once.
And when it comes to elections, we are even seeing differences there. Saskatchewan was expected to be the first Canadian jurisdiction to go through the exercise of a general election in a pandemic, mostly because the majority Saskatchewan Party government of Scott Moe is at the end of their mandate and must go. Also we’re seeing a different looking election in the United States starting, with the Democratic Convention starting this week mostly online and physically distanced. And even today we’re seeing stories like these coming out from elsewhere:
New Zealand has been one of the least hit and best managed countries when it comes to COVID-19. Being on a couple of islands way out in the middle of nowhere in the South Pacific helped that, but still New Zealand deserves a lot of credit for how they have dealt with this public health crisis. So it’s noteworthy that even they, who are in a general election right now, are not messing around with this disease in this moment. By moving to delay their election by a month, the Kiwis are taking the dangers in this moment very seriously.
You’d think that kind of care and seriousness would be a given after spending the last five months fighting the largest global pandemic in generations. You’d think that only those who had no choice in the matter would be going to the polls, due to the risks that come with trying to run an election in this circumstance. And if you were a reasonable person who thought that it looks like you may be wrong, as it seems that New Brunswick is hell bent on showing us all:
Watching the political drama in New Brunswick has admittedly been weird for me. Normally all the machinations and scuttlebutt of minority governments are like catnip for me, let alone one as tenuous and unique as the minority government that exists in New Brunswick. With the close numbers and the fact that 4 parties all have enough seats to make things interesting, it was always a situation ripe for political drama. And that’s before you talk about all the drama that’s come since the last election there, with MLA’s resigning from their parties and such. In normal times, you could legitimately think that it was a surprise that this minority lasted as long as it did.
Yet these are not normal times, nor is this a normal apparent falling of a government to create an election. It appears that the majority of voters get the seriousness of this moment, as polling that came out late last week showed that a majority of New Brunswickers don’t want an election, believe that parties should be focused on fighting the global pandemic, that an election is unnecessary and the obvious risks to public health. But it’s clear that wisdom doesn’t extend to those who sit in the Legislative Assembly of New Brunswick:
There has long been an assumption in political circles that parties don’t want to be seen to be the ones to cause a general election in a minority Parliament, mostly out of the fear that the electorate may punish them for it. It’s an assumption that hasn’t always been born out, but it’s always been a part of the calculus of bringing down a government (or a government bringing itself down). You’d think that axiom would be especially true during a global public health and economic crisis, one that has no end in sight and where the act of running an election holds serious public health and logistical concerns. Yet into the abyss these parties seem to be willing to go.
First you see the Progressive Conservatives of Blaine Higgs, who have managed to make this minority work decently well for a while now, deciding to try to use this moment to make a blatant power grab. The PC’s basically put a gun to the heads of the other three parties in the New Brunswick legislature, threatening to force an election if the parties didn’t agree to a deal that, according to CBC, “would include a promise by the other parties to not defeat the Progressive Conservative minority government on confidence and supply votes such as the budget and trigger a campaign”. That deal would last until either the pandemic passed, or 2022, whichever came first.
That’s bad enough, especially when you consider that the New Brunswick Legislature has worked relatively well during this pandemic period. But to make it worse, Higgs demanded that all three opposition parties agree to this, not just enough to give him the seats to keep going. That’s unprecedented, basically trying to neuter all opposition for two years, giving Higgs a defacto majority that the voters of New Brunswick refused him. Needless to say, this was a serious overreach on Higgs’ part, on par with Justin Trudeau’s overreach back in March, which Conservatives lustfully opposed then. Funny how they are quiet on this now, but that’s another topic for another day.
But in case you thought that this overreach from Higgs would blow up in his face, well you didn’t count on the overreach and cravenness from the opposition either. Instead of either finding a way to keep the legislature going, or the Official Opposition Liberals countering Higgs’ threats to go to the Lieutenant Governor to ask for an election by getting the Greens and People’s Alliance onside with them in a potential governing deal (not the easiest task I admit, but still worth the attempt), the Liberals exposed their own disconnection is their moment. To see Liberal MLA Denis Landry run to the cameras outside of where these shotgun negotiations were taking place and tell the assembled media “I would rather like to go to an election” was just stunning and tone deaf. Not only did Landry cut his leader Kevin Vickers out at the knees, he made his party look just as bad at the PC’s. Yes later we heard cries from the Liberals about how unsafe it would be to run an election during this pandemic, yet Landry’s words of seeing clear political advantage for his side that they could exploit rang louder. And that all lead to sights like these:
Yep, at a time when the elected leaders of New Brunswick should be getting ready for the return of school and trying to wipe out this global pandemic, they are getting ready for an election that the majority doesn’t want instead. Today at some point we’ll know for sure one way or another if it will happen, but the fact that we are even seeing this at all in this moment is just ugly and bad. New Brunswick has been spared much of the worst of this disease so far but trying to force their citizens to the polls for an election that simply didn’t need to happen is the kind of hubris that will bring health consequences to the province. This screams of not just the usual political selfishness that we see too often in our political discourse, but this time there is an added layer of ignorance that somehow this should be done now and will happen without consequences for the public health of the voters they so want the approval of.
This is a situation that simply shouldn’t be happening right now yet here we are. It looks like we’re about to witness one of the most dangerous political, social and public health case studies that we’ve seen in generations. Why in the Hell any party would choose to put themselves in this situation is beyond me because the risks, both political and public health, are far too high to warrant this election. Yet not only are these parties apparently willing to ignore those usual warnings, they appear to be more blinded by the prospect of power than concerned about the serious risks to the health of their constituents and to the real potential damage to their political futures. As someone who usually gets envious of those about to go on the campaign trail, this time I’m far from it. I’m happy to be watching this from a safe distance at home because this campaign simply shouldn’t happen. It’s not needed, it’s not urgent and it’s not safe. I pray that the parties come to their senses before they go too far here but that ship seems to have already sailed. It appears like New Brunswickers are about to become Canada’s political guinea pigs, the first to go to the polls in a pandemic. For their sakes, I pray that it doesn’t turn into a disastrous experiment, especially because it’s one that never needed to happen at all.
UPDATE: Monday August 17th, 12:09 PM EST – Well folks, it looks like it’s on: