Two Progressive Conservative MLAs broke ranks with their party again Tuesday and voted with the Liberal opposition in a bid to stall progress on an education bill that critics say would centralize decision-making power.
Ross Wetmore and Andrea Anderson-Mason voted with a Liberal amendment that would send the bill to the legislature’s law-amendments committee for public hearings — a step that would have prevented the bill from passing by the end of this week.
“I am concerned if this new governance model is enacted, there will be no limitations to where a Premier could have direct interference, including areas such as curriculum, policy, finances or even staff hiring and disciplinary practices,” Wetmore, the MLA for Gagetown- Petitcodiac, said in an e-mail.
The Liberal amendment was defeated 24-21, allowing the bill to advance past second reading and go to a different committee with no public hearings.
What I witnessed… left me feeling that our NB democracy had truly been hijacked.– George Daley, former deputy minister of education
Bill 46 would turn anglophone district education councils into advisory bodies with no direct decision-making power.
Anderson-Mason, the MLA for Fundy-The Isles-Saint John West, said in the legislature the bill will “remove debate and discourse at the local level. It eliminates the checks and balances that are there to protect our citizens, our families, our children.”
The two PC MLAs made their move following an email from former anglophone deputy minister of education George Daley to the eight Tories who issued a statement last week, complaining of a lack of transparency and process on the Policy 713 review.
Daley was fired last fall not long after then-education minister Dominic Cardy quit over proposed changes to French immersion.
“What I witnessed while in the deputy role left me feeling that our NB democracy had truly been hijacked over the last three years,” Daley wrote to the eight MLAs.
“Your efforts last week have given me some glitter of hope.”
In his email, obtained by CBC News, Daley complained of “the continual chaos” he said Premier Blaine Higgs was inflicting on the anglophone school system.
He said the controversial review of Policy 713, which sets minimum standards for schools to provide safe and inclusive learning spaces for LGBTQ students, is an example of what will happen more often if Bill 46 passes and anglophone district education councils are neutered.
“There is nothing in my educational career that I think will have a worse effect on our system than this currently proposed model,” Daley wrote.
“Please continue to be courageous whether it is on this bill or with other significant decisions,” he said.
Higgs told reporters the dissenting votes by Wetmore and Anderson-Mason were “concerning,” but said he was happy the bill advanced to a different committee process for “a good open discussion” this week.
The bill is one of nine subjects to a PC motion limiting debate time.
That motion will come up for a vote on Thursday, with approval effectively cutting off further discussion of Bill 46 and eight others so the house can adjourn for the summer on Friday.
But Higgs said he was prepared to have the legislature sit next week if the education bill needed more time.
“I’m prepared to stay in the House and if the questions aren’t all answered, we’ll just continue the House,” he said.
The premier says the bill is aiming at improving the governance of the anglophone education system to produce improved performance.
“Something has to be different. There has to be a step change in how we get better results,” he said.
Pride flag raised
The vote to advance Bill 46 came after MLAs from all parties gathered outside the legislature at noon for the raising of the Pride flag.
Several PC MLAs attended, including Education and Early Childhood Development Minister Bill Hogan.
He said his presence was important in light of the debate over Policy 713 that has been unfolding over the last five weeks.
“I think it’s absolutely important for me to be here so that people understand that I support diversity, I support the LGBTQ+ community, and what we’re doing has nothing to do by trying to roll back anyone’s rights,” he said.
“I respect them. I think we need to ensure they feel safe and protected.”
The government’s changes to the policy announced last week include ending an obligation for teachers to respect a student’s choice of name and pronouns without parental notification if they’re younger than 16.
Liberal Leader Susan Holt said she has decided to devote her party’s debate time on Thursday to a motion calling on the government to undo the changes, in the hope that some PC MLAs will support it.
The motion is not binding and if passed would not change the policy.
Local Government Minister Daniel Allain, one of the eight PCs who issued the dissenting statement last week, said he has not decided yet how he’ll vote on the Liberal motion.
“It’s a social discussion that’s dividing New Brunswickers, and I’m going to talk to my colleagues all this week and see where it goes. So we’ll see what happens.”
Social Development Minister Dorothy Shephard, another dissenter, spent several minutes at the flag raising talking to Pride in Education co-chair Gail Costello.
Shepherd gave Costello a supportive tap on the forearm as they wrapped up their conversation.