Opposition Day in the Legislature: Climate emergency vs profits for industry

Written by Susan O'Donnell on May 9, 2019

Memramcook-Tantramar Green Party MLA Megan Mitton questions New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs about the climate emergency on May 9.

On May 9, New Brunswick’s provincial opposition parties could potentially debate their new bills for the first time since mid-December. The PC government’s decision to limit the sitting days for MLAs has strangled opposition initiatives. Opposition parties – the Liberals, Greens and People’s Alliance – are restricted to debating their new bills during a small window of only a few hours on Thursday afternoons when the Legislature is in session.

The highlight of opposition day this week, for anyone following the political response to the environmental crisis, was the debate between Megan Mitton, MLA for Memramcook-Tantramar and Premier Blaine Higgs. Two days previously, Mitton said she planned to table a motion for New Brunswick to declare a climate emergency. On opposition day, Mitton rose to ask the Premier if he agrees that we need to halt the production of all fossil fuel infrastructure “in line with the science and recommendations urgently presented by the experts.”

Higgs responded that the opportunity is for New Brunswick to have a transition economy, not to cut off all economic development. Referring to the US competition for New Brunswick industry, he said the reason that the US economy is doing so well is because of their booming shale gas industry. Fracked gas is “a major achievement” in moving that country off heavy oil, according to the Premier.

Mitton countered that “we need to accept the scale of the crisis in order to mount the appropriate response,” adding that the UK had declared a climate and environmental emergency, and that 22 cities across Canada have also declared a climate emergency, including, in New Brunswick, Edmundston, Moncton and Saint John. Last week the minister of public safety agreed we have a climate emergency – Mitton asked the Premier if he agrees with his minister.

Higgs said he is unsure how much of climate change is based on human activity and how much “is based on global change.” Referring to the cost to industry of the government’s carbon plan, he stated that it was up to industry to lead the innovations required for a cleaner environment.

The exchange on the climate crisis came after a long debate about the student issues initiated by the Liberals. The PC government strongly defended the new tuition fee structure that covers students in private educational institutions. The government also defended their decision to reduce the SEED program funding for student summer jobs. According to media reports, the number of student SEED positions was cut from 2,000 in 2018 to 1,400 this summer, and the weeks of funding was also reduced.

Currently, only one opposition bill in the legislative calendar is related to the climate crisis: Bill 23, an act to amend the Electricity Act, to transition the economy toward green and renewable energy, moved by MLA and Green Party leader David Coon on May 7. According to a Green Party media release, the bill will allow municipal and First Nation governments to create partnerships to with local renewable power producers, permit publicly-owned municipal distribution utilities in Saint John, Edmundston and Perth-Andover to secure electric power directly from local renewable power producers outside their municipal boundaries, where sites for community-based wind or solar farms might be more favourable.

However before the Green’s renewable energy bill can be brought to a vote by MLAs, it must have a debate (a second reading) in the Legislature. As a result of the limited time allocated for debating opposition bills, this debate was started on May 9 but the time for opposition debate ran out before a vote could be taken. The government indicated in initial comments that it would not support the Bill. The next opportunity to continue the debate on Bill 23 will be the next opposition day on Thursday, May 16.

Given that the PC government is in a minority position, it can be brought down on confidence motions: the budget and the throne speech. The People’s Alliance supported the government’s 2018 throne speech and recent budget and thus are keeping the government in power. The next confidence vote is the throne speech for the next legislature, likely in November this year. If the government survives that vote, it will attempt to bring in a budget, likely in March or April 2020.

Susan O’Donnell is a member of the NB Media Co-op editorial board and a researcher on the RAVEN project.

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