Vote on nursing home workers’ right to strike could trigger election

Telegraph Journal | December 13, 2019

Premier Blaine Higgs has warned he is willing to trigger an early election over the nursing home bill.

On Thursday, as the People’s Alliance walked back its thus-far steadfast support, Higgs said the vote to amend essential services in nursing homes will be a confidence vote — meaning its defeat could topple his minority government.

This year “could be the first election on Christmas Day,” he told reporters in the Legislature.

Although calling an election isn’t ideal, Higgs said, the bill to amend the Essential Services Act to include nursing home staff is his “line in the sand,” and a “fundamental” part of protecting provincial residents and warrants a confidence vote. 

The bill comes after an appeal court ruling asked the province to change its legislation to address constitutional concerns around the workers’ right to strike and the percentage of employees required to work during strike action in order to maintain nursing home care. The government has until January 2020 to produce amendments.

It has drawn conflict between parties because it places conditions on binding arbitration, in contrast with a non-binding motion supported by a house majority in the spring to oppose conditions levied on the process. 

“To ensure that seniors are not vulnerable in the new year, in January, in our nursing homes, we need this legislation passed. And we will stay here to New Year’s Eve, Christmas Eve, we will stay there to put things through the system.”  

Shortly before Higgs made the statement, People’s Alliance Leader Kris Austin told press that despite his agreement to prop up the minority government, he wouldn’t support any Conservative bills until there’s action on a bill to reclassify paramedics as medical professionals — and he wants to see it before the House rises at the end of next week. 

“For over a year, we’ve been told they’re going to move on this,” he said.

“I’m tired of consultations, I’m tired of studies, I’m tired of reviews and meetings, I want action. And that’s what we’re expecting to get from this government and if we don’t get it, it’s contingent on our support.” 

Higgs said he believes the bill needs to go forward, but declined to say whether it would happen in the next week. 

“I’m hopeful that we will have a solution there before the end of the session, but I have timelines, too,” he said, reiterating that his focus will be on the essential services bill. 

The premier does not expect a smooth passage next week, noting that there has been opposition from the Liberals. 

“At the end of the day, we’re fighting for the same thing that the Liberals fought for two years. And it’s such a sad state in our ability to make things happen when our opinions just change when you cross the floor,” he said.

“Do I expect them to drag the puck and keep pushing out the timeline, pushing out the timeline and hope that they don’t have to make a decision, hope they don’t have to vote? I absolutely do … but at the end of the day, we’re not leaving this legislature until we have voted on it.”

As for the Official Opposition, house leader Guy Arseneault said he was surprised to see the bill would be a confidence vote as it was introduced only a few weeks ago. 

He said that with this first confidence vote from the Higgs government on a bill to amend an act, there are a lot of unanswered questions.

“Is it a vote of confidence at second reading? Is it going to be a vote of confidence in committee? Is it going to be a vote of confidence on amendments? Will he accept amendments?” Arsenault said, adding that the big amendment they plan to propose is binding arbitration with no conditions.

However, the prognosis on such an amendment doesn’t look promising, as Higgs said amendments to the bill would have to be minimal to get his backing. 

“The essence of the bill is that we need to consider the wages around us, our ability to pay, we need to consider the economic factors in our province, and so it would have to be very minor,” he said on potential amendments.

These same factors are listed in the bill’s conditions on arbitration, the very conditions the Liberals want to see scrapped.

The Green Party has also flagged this as a concern, and Leader David Coon called the move to call it a confidence vote “reckless.”

He also told the Telegraph-Journal on the day amendments were introduced that the conditions placed on binding arbitration are an “effort by this government to undermine collective bargaining.”

Despite threatening conditional support, Austin says the Alliance recognizes how important the essential services amendments are. 

“What we can’t allow to happen is a strike in January, so we have to avoid that at all costs,” he said, but declined to give an answer on how he would vote. 

Asked before Higgs’ revelation if he would vote for the bill if it’s declared a confidence matter, he said they would “discuss it as a caucus” when the time comes.

The fate of the bill to amend the essential services act will be decided next week before the House rises.

“I don’t want to see an election any more than anyone else does,” Higgs said.

“But there are some fundamentals that are hugely important … and we need everybody on board. If we don’t address this, then what else do we let slide? And at the end of the day, we just can’t make the difference that we must.”

Savannah Awde | Legislature Bureau