As a result of Premier Higgs’ threat to do so last year and the importance of the by-elections that will have to take place anyway, many are predicting that Higgs will simply call a general election.
New Brunswick is home to four publicly-funded universities across five campuses in the province with the student bodies of four of these five campuses currently represented under the New Brunswick Student Alliance (NBSA).
The NBSA’s approach to advocacy is very lobbying-based. It prides itself on being reasonable with the government by drafting policy points and trying to avoid mobilizing unless it is necessary to protect policies NBSA has worked to put into place. According to the NBSA’s strategic plan for 2018-2021, the organization will seek to “build relationships with decision-makers in order to advance the collective agenda of its members.”
This focus on building relationships with lawmakers explains why the NBSA is often successful under Liberal governments but have had all their long-term advocacy plans grind to a halt and pushed back under Progressive Conservative governments, much like what happened last April.
The NBSA believes and tells its members that needs-based grant programs are the path to practically free tuition, because an increasing number of students are covered by needs-based funding in the province. However this funding was cut in half by the Higgs government last year.
Since then, the NBSA has started its Facebook and Twitter campaigns #notfairatall that contradict the message of how modest and fair Higgs suggested these cuts were. The NBSA also mobilized outside of the Provincial Legislature building in October last year.
The long-term goals of the NBSA rely on progressive governments staying in power and gradually increasing grants rather than cutting them and leaving the most vulnerable students high and dry financially. Hard times often push the NBSA to invest most of its energy into Get Out the Vote (GOTV) Campaigns. Though these campaigns are always strictly non-partisan, they understand that when young people do vote, the vast majority will vote in their political interest as students.
Just on the St. Thomas University campus alone (home of the NBSA’s smallest member union) the first week of classes in 2019 was filled with volunteers in custom GOTV T-shirts handing out free chips and cold drinks along with custom campaign “I voted” pins, and encouraging students to sign pledges to vote in the upcoming federal election.
One may dismiss this tactic as only an advantage to electoral ridings with campus communities, but this overlooks that on-campus voting stations around the country or province make it easy for students to choose to vote in the community they study in, or in the community they came from. This makes the student vote especially significant in Canada, and organized students are very aware of this.
However, despite the efforts the NBSA will put into positive government relations, it is rarely guaranteed that the government will reciprocate this respect.
Last April, when the Higgs government first announced the cuts, students were just starting exam season. All the efforts to protest this decision, whether by NBSA executives designing online campaigns to call out Higgs, or by independent student groups such as myself and my friends in STUdents for Free Tuition demonstrating outside the legislature, were all accomplished during the most hectic time of the year.
When STUdents for Free Tuition was given the chance to meet with Trevor Holder, Minister of Post-Secondary education, we told him frankly that this seemed to be deceptive on the part of the Higgs government to announce such an important decision to students during our busiest time of the year: Holder did not address our concern.
Now, the deadline for Higgs to pick a date for the by-election in St. Croix is in March, the month before exam period in April. The Premier has been receiving criticism since he first announced the possibility of calling a general election that there is a strong chance that just by calling the election, his Progressive Conservative party would not be re-elected.
Though currently leading in the polls, in just a short two years in office, his opponents now have plenty of ammunition against him. Not to mention he will not have the vigor and enthusiasm of a reactionary campaign to get a Liberal government out of office, and will have to worry about losing seats to and having votes split by the People’s Alliance in more ridings than just St. Croix. Thinking from Higgs’ perspective, the best way to get what he wants (a PC majority) is a general election where for the most part people stay home, especially young people.
Though there is never a way to prove intent in these scenarios, the easiest way for a Progressive Conservative government to suppress the vote for Liberal, Green, or NDP candidates would be to hold the election during a time where it would be the most difficult for students in the province to organize Get Out the Vote campaigns.
The thing is though, even if Higgs did do exactly what I am talking about in April, most New Brunswickers would not even bat an eye, possibly not even most students. If the Higgs government does what I am predicting it will, it will have done so for the same reason they waited till exam season last year to specify to students what they were really doing by expanding needs-based coverage to private institutions: because they know that they can get away with it. Because they know how easy it is to shrug someone off if they think a government decision didn’t just coincide with a particularly inconvenient date.
There is no way to prove intent, therefore there is never the need for accountability.