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Opposition leaders say N.B. premier could use poison pill to trigger election call

FREDERICTON — New Brunswick opposition leaders are criticizing Premier Blaine Higgs after he left the province guessing for weeks about whether he would plunge them into an early election campaign.
New Brunswick Opposition leaders are criticizing Premier Blaine Higgs who has left the province guessing for weeks about whether he's going to call an election. Higgs speaks to media outside Government House, in Fredericton, Tuesday, June 27, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Stephen MacGillivray

FREDERICTON — New Brunswick opposition leaders are criticizing Premier Blaine Higgs after he left the province guessing for weeks about whether he would plunge them into an early election campaign.

Although the Progressive Conservative premier seems to have pulled back from his threat to call an election before the legislature resumes sitting Tuesday, critics say he could still orchestrate his government's defeat in a throne speech.

Election speculation has swirled since six members of Higgs's party voted against the government in June on a motion related to the province's policy on sexual orientation and gender identity in schools.

Higgs said in a statement last week that his government could not function if the dissident Tories are determined to operate independently within their own party.

"A government cannot function in this manner," he said in the statement. "On many topics, consensus is not always achieved, but democracy works because the majority of participants support the agenda."

Higgs wasn't available for an interview Friday.

Green and Liberal party leaders are speculating that Higgs could use the throne speech as a poison pill to upend his government and trigger an election.

"If I was going to make a bet on it, I would say that there's a good chance that the premier will design the throne speech to contain a poison pill — things that will be impossible for rebels in his caucus, and maybe a couple of others in his caucus to support, so that the vote on the throne speech will fail, and that will trigger the election," said Green Leader David Coon. 

"And then he can say, 'well, it wasn't my choice. But, you know, the Opposition parties, together with the conservative rebels voted my throne speech down. So now we're going to election.'"

Liberal Leader Susan Holt said she's heard similar speculation. "So that Higgs can then blame the election on us and on them. Well, we're waiting to see Tuesday whether that's the case."

She said she got a notice from the Speaker Thursday that the throne speech would go ahead next week.

"I'm really frustrated, actually. I think we are wasting New Brunswickers' time and tax dollars right now with the premier's indecision and game-playing on a possible election call."

Higgs has to call a general election on or before Oct. 21, 2024.

New Brunswick chief electoral officer Kim Poffenroth said her agency had to move up its plans and prepare to go to the polls early. In anticipation of the snap election call, the agency purchased printed material, training guides and manuals, she said, and hired returning officers and secured polling spaces for five Mondays in October and November.

Some of the printed material can be reused, and some of the officers who underwent accelerated training can return the next time an election is called, she said. But there won't be a return on money spent to reserve polling spaces, Poffenroth said. 

The invoices are still coming in, she said, when asked how much money was spent.

"There may be some costs that were incurred there. Some of these things are costs that were incurred early, but we'll still use them," she said. "In other cases, it's money spent as insurance as far as we're concerned. We need to be ready if an election is called."

J.P. Lewis, a political science professor at the University of New Brunswick, Saint John, said it would be a smart move if Higgs used the throne speech to lay out his vision for the province.

"That becomes kind of the launch of your campaign. You can say, 'this is what we want to do in New Brunswick. This is our viewed future for New Brunswick and the Opposition isn't letting us do it, so we need a new mandate,'" he said.

"That sets up the justification for an early election much easier."

However, Lewis said the Progressive Conservatives, who hold 29 of the legislature's 49 seats, could face a tight race.

"It would definitely point, as everything stands right now, to a very competitive election — if it happened now," he said. "I would say that with confidence."

John Williston, the party's vice-president for the Moncton and Albert County areas, said there could potentially be several ex-Tories who run as Independent conservative candidates, possibly upsetting Higgs's chances of a majority.

"All that can be avoided by the premier working with his caucus and cabinet and fulfilling his mandate … there's still 12 months roughly left in that."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 13, 2023.

Hina Alam, The Canadian Press