Four of New Brunswick’s party leaders sparred over leadership styles, pandemic politics, the economy and campaign promises during a roundtable discussion Thursday evening.
The leaders of New Brunswick’s four political parties represented in the last legislature took part in the virtual event hosted by CTV Atlantic’s senior anchor, Steve Murphy.
The roundtable focused on the following themes: governance and leadership, the COVID-19 pandemic, the economy and budget, and policy and promises.
CTV News included questions submitted or inspired by viewers.
New Brunswickers will head to the polls to vote for a new leader on Monday.
GOVERNANCE AND LEADERSHIP
When asked why New Brunswickers should vote in favour of a Liberal majority government when they wouldn’t give Brian Gallant’s Liberals a majority two years ago, party leader Kevin Vickers pointed to leadership and took aim at Progressive Conservative Leader Blaine Higgs for calling an election during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Leadership isn’t calling a reckless and unneeded and unwanted election in the middle of a pandemic,” said Vickers.
“Leadership is about having a bold vision, a bold idea, and I am going to be transforming the economy of our province and ensuring that we have a healthy economy that’s going to fund our programs such as health and education.”
Vickers said he plans to transform New Brunswick’s economy by focusing on three sectors: technology, the green economy and small modular nuclear reactors.
He called small modular nuclear reactors a “once-in-a-generation opportunity” that could create up to 10,000 direct jobs and 40,000 indirect jobs.
Higgs defended his performance as premier, stating that leadership is about having a plan, and insisting his government has worked with others to put plans into action. He also accused Vickers of making campaign promises “in the back of the bus.”
“We’re seeing momentum right now. Leadership is about being a facilitator, it’s about getting people involved in solutions rather than say, ‘Look, I have all the solutions,’” said Higgs. “I’m the first to admit, we have opportunities to be better in the system and it starts right in the campaign.”
Higgs also said he is committed to being “completely transparent” moving forward.
Meanwhile, Green Leader David Coon said he is ready to sit down and speak with whoever is elected premier on Monday.
As for his leadership style, Coon said he takes a “collegial approach” and is focused on listening to and engaging with New Brunswickers — something he said he doesn’t see in the other leaders.
“That’s the way I would operate as premier, but what I’ve seen with the others is that they’re not engaging,” said Coon.
He accused Higgs of failing to listen to the province’s Acadian and Indigenous communities, saying his leadership style leaves people behind.
“He’s definitely not listening to either of those communities and therefore he’s always taking this position of, here’s what I want to do and you either sign on and agree with me — that’s his idea of collaboration — or you take the other road,” said Coon.
Higgs shot back, saying he is proud of his relationship with the Acadian and Indigenous communities.
But Coon pressed Higgs, questioning why he hasn’t called an inquiry into system racism in the justice and policing system after two Indigenous people were shot and killed by police in June.
Higgs responded that a number of public inquiries related to Indigenous issues have already been conducted over the past 25 years, and 797 recommendations have been made, but only 20 have been implemented. Instead of calling another inquiry, he said it’s time to put those recommendations into action.
Coon said he would work to find common ground with Higgs if he is re-elected, especially when it comes to issues like health care.
However, he accused Higgs of failing to implement any of the health-care reforms included in his platform during the last election.
“Instead, he tried to implement some things that were not that the health authorities brought to him that were just so tone deaf to the realities on the ground because of the concentration of power and decision-making in Fredericton, in the central health authorities and in the premier’s office,” said the Green leader.
In response, Higgs listed off some of his government’s accomplishments, pointing out the PCs have brought in 18 nurse practitioners, opened 14 walk-in medical clinics and removed billing numbers.
Turning to the topic of minority governments and keeping the People’s Alliance in the legislature, party leader Kris Austin said it’s better if one party isn’t calling “all the shots.”
“I know we have opposition, but all opposition can do is simply point out the issues that they take with it,” he said. “But they’re really powerless to do anything. But in a minority government, as we’ve seen over the last two years, opposition parties like ourselves were able to pull government back and were able to push government forward in areas where they need to be pushed forward.”
Austin said his party is ready to hold the government accountable and provide stability.
“I don’t trust any of them to do it on their own, whether it’s Mr. Higgs or Mr. Vickers or anyone else,” he said. “Anybody with all the power is going to do what their hidden agenda calls in to do.”
However, he did say he will work with anyone who is willing to sit down to “discuss reasonable, rationale approaches to the issues and challenges” New Brunswickers face.
Meanwhile, Vickers said his party is not willing to form a minority government with the People’s Alliance due to their views on French language rights.
Vickers, Coon and Austin each blasted Higgs for calling a provincial election during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Vickers called the decision an “opportunistic power grab” in the hopes of claiming a majority government and accused Higgs of having a secret agenda.
“In the middle of a pandemic he decided to take a chance on New Brunswick,” said the Liberal leader. “Mr. Higgs has a secret agenda people, and I tell you we need to be on top of this … things are going to be much worse if you decide to re-elect this man as your premier.”
Austin questioned why Higgs agreed in March that municipal elections should not go ahead in the spring because of the pandemic — only to later call a provincial election.
“At the end of the day. Mr. Higgs had options. He’s trying to fool the people … try to help people understand, erroneously, that this was a necessary call and it’s all about stability,” said the People’s Alliance leader.
“That makes no sense whatsoever. The whole thing is a joke. We should not be in the middle of an election right now. It’s nothing but political opportunity, and to heck with public safety.”
Coon agreed, saying there was no need to call the election, and accusing Higgs of defaulting to “my way or the highway” when making decisions.
“He keeps saying he’s got a plan to save New Brunswick but he won’t tell us what it is, and if it was written before the pandemic, it’s not worth the paper it wasn’t written on,” said the Green leader.
Higgs defended the decision, stating that he wanted to call the election now, when COVID-19 cases are low, to avoid having to call one during a possible second wave.
“Because we saw that happen when the wave was just starting, when both the Greens, and particularly Kevin Vickers and his team, were not prepared to support the government,” said Higgs. “There was no security, there was no stability.”
However, Vickers said he wrote Higgs a letter, guaranteeing that the Liberals wouldn’t cause the government to fall during the pandemic.
“Higgs had a choice. He had a clear choice but he decided to put politics before the people,” he said.
Higgs said his party is taking all the appropriate health measures on the campaign trail, noting that his candidates are not knocking on doors, unlike some candidates for other parties.
“If politicians are going to ignore the rules then it really doesn’t matter what we do because they’re not going to follow the rules anyway,” he said. “My purpose here is that we can do this safely.”
On cancelling municipal elections, Higgs said they were supposed to be held in the spring at the height of the pandemic, and said they could potentially be held in the fall if case numbers remain low, but acknowledged that municipalities may not want to hold elections at this time.
Turning to the topic of a COVID-19 vaccine, Coon said he would “absolutely” support making the vaccine mandatory when it becomes available, even though his party withheld support for Bill 11 back in June.
The controversial bill would have required children in public schools and licensed daycare facilities to provide proof of immunization unless they had an exemption signed by a medical professional. Non-medical exemptions are currently accepted.
“The difference with COVID-19 is there’s no immunity in the population so there cannot be exemptions for the COVID-19 vaccine,” he said. “And, in fact, we’re going to have to go further and suggest people are going to have to show proof of vaccination to attend those kinds of events and public spaces where there’s the greatest risk of spreading that infection.”
Austin also refused to support Bill 11, and wouldn’t commit to supporting a mandatory COVID-19 vaccine without exemptions, saying he believes the current system is working.
“If the system’s not broke, don’t try to fix it,” said the People’s Alliance leader.
He also said he believes most people will get the vaccine if it has been approved and they trust it is safe.
As for when New Brunswick should open up to provinces outside the Atlantic region, Vickers said it has to happen at some point to help the economy, but that he and his party will always follow the advice of Dr. Jennifer Russell, the province’s chief medical officer of health.
Austin agreed that New Brunswick can’t allow the economic fallout to continue, but said he would like to see infection rates down in other parts of the country first before opening up.
ECONOMY AND BUDGET
The first question in this round went to Coon, who said his party will focus on community-led development.
The Green leader said he’s impressed by the enthusiasm, energy and ideas he sees among those working to develop businesses and social enterprises in local communities.
“What we need to do is support those folks with the right policies and the right financial arrangements,” said Coon.
He said he would like to see New Brunswick become more food-secure and energy-secure by producing more food and taking better advantage of the renewal energy resources available in the province.
“We’re talking about reducing imports and replacing them with things we can produce here instead, to keep the money circulating in our economy and creating real community wealth,” said Coon.
When questioned what it would cost taxpayers to turn his ideas into reality, Coon insisted there are opportunities for economic development when it comes to renewable energy, and some, such as wind power, have “absolutely no cost.”
“It’s cheaper than any other option out there and certainly way cheaper than the expensive nuclear power that both Mr. Higgs and Mr. Vickers are promoting,” said Coon.
But Austin questioned his strategy, stating that “windmills is not going to change the economic situation in New Brunswick.”
The People’s Alliance leader also took aim at the government’s investments in economic development, claiming a large portion of the money goes to corporate handouts without real tracking of how many jobs are created.
“What I’d like to see is, instead of just kind of willy-nilly handing out this money to big corporations, let’s take the same amount of money and let’s start lowering taxes so that everybody can benefit,” suggested Austin.
“We need much more bolder action, and tax reform is that bold action that I’m convinced will help businesses here succeed and get businesses from outside the province to come into New Brunswick.”
When asked about balancing the budget, Austin said he doesn’t believe New Brunswick needs to balance the budget during the pandemic.
“We do need to get there, but realistically I think it’s just not reasonable to say we’re going to do that during the pandemic.”
Meanwhile, Vickers said he is committed to not raising taxes, and would instead focus on growth and investment.
“What we really have to do is really transform our economy and raise those revenues so that we are able to finance our programs such as health and education and all these important things,” said the Liberal leader.
He reiterated that he would focus on technology, the green economy and small nuclear modular reactors, and said his team would be “aggressive” in attracting companies in those sectors around the world to New Brunswick.
“We’re going to put Fredericton and Moncton and the other communities with a technology imprint back on the map,” said Vickers.
But Coon questioned why Vickers wants to look outside of New Brunswick to help grow the economy.
“What we’re hearing from Mr. Vickers is what we’re hearing from Mr. Higgs is that they don’t believe in New Brunswickers,” said Coon. “We have tremendous creativity, tremendous ideas and we’ve got to stop government from stifling those and stamping them down.”
Turning to the topic of cuts in health-care services, Higgs said New Brunswick is facing serious challenges, but promised that emergency rooms would remain open 24 hours.
Higgs was criticized earlier this year over a decision to close ERs overnight in six community hospitals, prompting him to cancel the closures.
While ERs will remain open full-time, Higgs said some changes will have to be made to improve the current health-care system.
“Anyone that suggests doing nothing is acceptable is not living in the real world,” said the PC leader.
However, he admitted he doesn’t have any specific plans in mind at this time, saying he will rely on health authorities and health-care professionals to inform his decisions.
Coon said he would give authority back to local hospitals and create community health boards, while Austin said he would prefer to see one health authority operating under one system.
Bipartisan Politics | Politics and Public Affairs – Denison University
But the ties that bind these four individuals are stronger than most. They, and several other Big Red alumni, are connected through Forbes Tate Partners, a bipartisan, full-service government and public affairs advocacy firm, founded by Forbes and his partner Dan Tate.
In today’s divisive political landscape it might be difficult to imagine that colleagues from opposite sides of the aisle can be, well, collegial. But according to Forbes, who has worked on Democratic campaigns since Al Gore’s presidential bid, that’s the whole point.
“People forget about the moderate factions in politics — and that’s where real work can be done,” says Forbes. So it made sense to build a firm that could work well with both parties and provide positive results for everyone.
And the work has become more complicated. “Lobbying has changed,” he says. “It’s not as much who you know – though that still matters. Today, you have to run a full-fledged campaign with traditional PR, social media, news updates. You have to make sure the people back home see the reason for what you are doing, to create that support before you move forward.”
So how did all these Denisonians find their way to Forbes Tate? You can credit another Denison tie, the Hilltoppers men’s a cappella group. Forbes was a member of the popular campus group, and several years ago a student Hilltopper reached out to him, struggling to figure out what to do for the summer. Forbes’ impulsive response, “Why don’t you come here?” became the beginning of an internship program that has brought scads of students from Denison’s hill to Capitol Hill.
US vetted stars' politics to showcase Trump virus response – CKPGToday.ca
The names were among the spreadsheets, memos, notes and other documents from September and October released by the House Oversight and Reform Committee.
The firms’ vetting came as political appointees planned to spend more than $250 million on a confidence-building campaign surrounding the virus, which has killed more than 227,000 people in the United States and is a core issue in the presidential race between Trump and Democrat Joe Biden.
While government public health campaigns are routine, the ad blitz planned by HHS was mired from the start by involvement from department spokesman Michael Caputo, a fierce loyalist and friend of Trump with little experience in the field. In September, a spokesman for Caputo said he was taking a medical leave from HHS as he battled cancer.
Trump, a Republican, has repeatedly minimized the dangers of the coronavirus, even as the nation is in its third wave of infections, with tens of thousands of cases reported each day.
According to one memo compiled by a subcontractor to Atlas Research, one of the firms hired by HHS, Caputo suggested a series of soundbites and taglines for the campaign, including “Helping the President will Help the Country.” The notes say that Caputo wanted the campaign to be “remarkable” and to rival Rosie the Riveter, the character who symbolized women who worked in factories and shipyards during World War II against Germany.
“For us, the ‘enemy’ is the virus,” Caputo said, according to the memo.
The documents also show pushback from some of the federal employees leading the work, who removed Caputo from an email chain and thanked one of the contractors for dealing with a “challenging” environment.
The Democrat-led Oversight panel said Caputo was overstepping his bounds, interfering in work that is supposed to be done by contract officers at the department and politicizing what is supposed to be nonpartisan.
“Of course, it is completely inappropriate to frame a taxpayer-funded ad campaign around ‘helping’ President Trump in the weeks and days before the election,” said House Oversight Chairwoman Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., and Reps. James Clyburn of South Carolina and Raja Krishnamoorthi of Illinois, both subcommittee chairmen, in a letter to HHS Secretary Alex Azar. “This theme also ignores the reality that more than 220,000 Americans have died from coronavirus — a fact that should not be whitewashed in a legitimate public health message.”
Azar put the entire project on hold earlier this month, telling the Oversight subcommittee led by Clyburn that it was being investigated internally.
“I have ordered a strategic review of this public health education campaign that will be led by our top public health and communications experts to determine whether the campaign serves important public health purposes,” Azar told the subcommittee, which is investigating the federal government’s response to the coronavirus outbreak.
Because public health policy around the coronavirus pandemic has become so politically polarized, it’s unclear how well a confidence-building campaign from the government would play.
HHS officials acknowledge a major challenge to any campaign would involve finding trusted intermediaries to make the pitch to average Americans. On health care matters, people usually trust doctors first, not necessarily celebrities. And Trump has alienated much of the medical establishment with his dismissive comments about basic public health measures, such as wearing masks.
The 34-page “PSA Celebrity Tracker” compiled by Atlas Research and released by the committee does not say whether the celebrities were aware they were even being considered or if they had agreed to participate. The report says that no celebrities are now affiliated with the project but a handful did initially agree to participate.
Singer Marc Antony, who has been critical of Trump, pulled out after seeking an amendment to his contract to “ensure that his content would not be used for advertisements to re-elect President Trump.”
Actor Dennis Quaid also initially agreed and then pulled out, according to a document from Atlas Research. In an Instagram video post last month titled “No good deed goes unpoliticized,” Quaid said he was frustrated that a taped interview he did with Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious-disease expert, for the campaign was portrayed in the media as an endorsement of Trump.
“Nothing could be further from the truth,” Quaid said, noting that the interview was still available on his podcast.
Antony and Quaid were among just a few celebrities who were approved for the campaign, according to the documents. Others included TV health commentator Dr. Oz and singer Billy Ray Cyrus.
“Spokespeople for public service campaigns should be chosen on their ability to reach the target audience, not their political affiliation,” the letter from the Democrats reads. “Yet, documents produced by the contractors indicate that the Trump Administration vetted spokespeople based on their political positions and whether they support President Trump.”
Associated Press writer Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar contributed to this report.
Mary Clare Jalonick, The Associated Press
How Virus Politics Divided a Conservative Town in Wisconsin’s North – The New York Times
MINOCQUA, Wis. — When coronavirus cases began to spike in Wisconsin this fall, Rob Swearingen kept his restaurant open and let customers and employees decide whether they wanted to wear masks.
Mr. Swearingen, a Republican seeking his fifth term in the Wisconsin State Assembly, didn’t require other employees at his restaurant in Rhinelander to be tested after a waitress and a bartender contracted the virus because, he said, nobody from the local health department suggested it was necessary.
Kirk Bangstad, Mr. Swearingen’s Democratic opponent, took the opposite approach at the brewpub he owns in Minocqua, 30 miles away. He has served customers only outdoors, and when a teenage waiter became infected after attending a party, Mr. Bangstad shut down for a long weekend and required all employees to get tested.
Mr. Bangstad has since turned his entire campaign into a referendum on how Republicans have handled the coronavirus. On Facebook, he has served as a town shamer, posting lists of restaurants and stores in Wisconsin’s Northwoods that have disregarded state limits on seating capacity and don’t require masks.
With just days until the election, the contest for Mr. Swearingen’s Assembly seat in this lightly populated area in the Northwoods of Wisconsin serves as a microcosm for the way coronavirus politics are playing out across America. Mr. Bangstad is unlikely to prevail in a Republican-heavy district that covers parts of four counties stretching south from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, but his effort to make the campaign a referendum on the virus echoes that of former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., who has sought to make President Trump’s handling of the pandemic the central issue in the presidential contest.
Mr. Bangstad, a 43-year-old Harvard-educated former professional opera singer, moved back to Wisconsin six years ago from Manhattan, where he was a technology consultant and served as the policy director for Anthony Weiner’s 2013 mayoral campaign. Like Mr. Biden, he has eschewed traditional campaigning. He has moved his entire effort online, including in email and on the Facebook page of his brewpub, the Minocqua Brewing Company.
But unlike the former vice president, Mr. Bangstad has made little effort to win over voters who aren’t already appalled by Republicans’ handling of the coronavirus. Many of them, he said, are being duped by false or misleading statements by the president and the conservative news media.
“A lot of them, I feel, haven’t been equipped with the tools of media literacy or critical thinking skills to be able to discern if they’re being told something that doesn’t quite jell or is not true,” he said during an interview this week at his shuttered restaurant overlooking Lake Minocqua.
Oneida County, which includes Minocqua and Rhinelander, where Mr. Swearingen operates the Al-Gen Dinner Club and has lived his entire life, has a virus rate nearly twice the state average over the past two weeks.
Scott Haskins, whose wife, Pamela, is a waitress at the Al-Gen, is among the county’s recent fatalities. Ms. Haskins contracted the virus after working a restaurant shift in mid-September and was hospitalized in early October. Mr. Haskins, 63, checked into the hospital with the virus four days after his wife, according to his daughter, Kelly Schulz.
Two days later, Mr. Haskins suffered a stroke and died.
“The day after my dad passed, Governor Evers put in the 25 percent capacity limit, and they weren’t abiding by it,” Ms. Schulz said of the Al-Gen. “People were posting pictures of themselves there on Facebook and it was pretty busy for a Friday night.”
Republicans who control the state legislature this month successfully sued Mr. Evers to overturn the capacity limits on bars and restaurants he ordered. In Oneida County, local sheriffs and town police departments weren’t enforcing them anyway.
Before winning election to the Assembly, Mr. Swearingen, 57, was the president of the Tavern League of Wisconsin, the powerful lobbying group for the state’s bars. He fought the state’s efforts to ban smoking indoors at businesses, lift the drinking age to 21 from 18 and increase the legal blood alcohol limit to drive.
He said his restaurant is not responsible for employees who caught the coronavirus. No one from the local health department ever called with questions, he said, and no contact tracers contacted the restaurant. Mr. Swearingen said he has not had a test himself.
“There’s been no connection to the restaurant to all these cases,” he said during an interview in the dining room of the Al-Gen, which is bedecked with taxidermied heads of deer and black bears. “These people are part-time, coming from different jobs and different things.”
Of all the places where Democrats barely bothered to compete in 2016, Wisconsin’s Northwoods may have been the most neglected. Not only did Hillary Clinton skip Wisconsin altogether, county Democrats in this region didn’t even have yard signs to distribute, not that there was much demand for them.
Mrs. Clinton was a “polarizing’’ candidate, said Matt Michalsen, a high school social studies teacher who ran against Mr. Swearingen in 2016. “Personally, did I support her? No.”
Four years later, Mr. Bangstad has few expectations that he will win. He sees his campaign largely as an effort to increase Democratic turnout for Mr. Biden and cut into Mr. Trump’s margins by focusing attention on the impact of the coronavirus on northern Wisconsin.
Mr. Bangstad wrapped the side of his restaurant in a giant Biden-Harris sign that attracted the ire of the Oneida County Board, which sent a letter informing him that it exceeded the allowable size of 32 square feet. After Mr. Bangstad used the fracas to raise money and get more attention for himself in the local press, the board backed down.
At the same time, the Biden campaign and local Democrats have put far more resources into northern Wisconsin than they did four years ago. There are twice as many organizers focused on the area than in 2016. And though the Clinton campaign swore off yard signs as an unnecessary annoyance, the state party has made efforts to get them in every yard that would take one.
“We distributed approximately 50 Hillary yard signs four years ago, and we’re at more than 1,200 so far for Joe,” said Jane Nicholson, the party chairwoman in Vilas County, just north of Oneida County.
There’s some evidence that Mr. Biden is making up ground. A poll taken for Mr. Bangstad’s campaign this month found Mr. Trump leading Mr. Biden in the district by five percentage points — a far cry from his 25-point margin of victory in 2016. The same survey found Mr. Swearingen ahead by 12 points, less than half his 26-point margin over Mr. Michalsen four years ago.
Mr. Trump won Wisconsin in 2016 by less than 23,000 votes statewide. His gap in Mr. Swearingen’s district alone was 14,000 votes.
“If we’re in the low 40s there, that means that we have blocked Trump’s path to pulling in the votes that he’d need to cancel out other areas of the state,” said Ben Wikler, the chairman of the Democratic Party of Wisconsin.
The Assembly race has engendered hurt feelings and worsened political divisions in Minocqua, a town of about 4,000 full-time residents. Down the street from the Minocqua Brewing Company, Tracy Lin Grigus, a Trump supporter who owns the Shade Tree bookstore, shook her head at Mr. Bangstad’s attempts to shame local businesses.
“On his Facebook, he’s calling all of us up here idiots, like a mini Joe Biden,’’ said Ms. Grigus, who doesn’t wear a mask in her store and doesn’t ask her customers to do so. “It’s insulting to people that share the space with him and other business owners. He’s like the only one in this town and surrounding towns that went this far.”
Across Oneida Street, the main drag through Minocqua’s small downtown, Casie Oldenhoff, an assistant manager at the Monkey Business T-shirt shop, where signs instruct customers to wear a mask, said Mr. Trump was to blame for the current wave of the pandemic.
“He’s just not taking care of us,” Ms. Oldenhoff said. “He doesn’t care about what’s going on with the pandemic.”
Mr. Swearingen said he had little doubt that Mr. Trump would do just as well in the Northwoods on Tuesday as he did in 2016. Enthusiasm for the president is higher, he said, as evidenced by the regular boat and car parades adorned with Trump flags and carrying young men concerned foremost about a Biden administration taking away their guns.
But he said he had never been involved in a campaign as ugly as his own this year.
“We’ve been targeted by my opponent as a den of Covid and all sorts of rumors in Facebook,’’ he said. “I’ve never quite had to fight against Facebook in an election. He went after a couple of other bars in the area, and one of the bar owners was livid that that bar was on the list. It’s like, ‘Well, who are these people? It’s the mask police or something.’”
For Mr. Bangstad, shaming Mr. Swearingen and other Republicans who have fought against public health guidelines is exactly the point.
“If you’re a citizen in this state, and there’s one branch of government that’s trying to keep people healthy from Covid, and you have the legislative branch and the judicial branch trying to stymie him every single time he does it, it’s the saddest thing you’ve ever seen,” he said. “As a Wisconsinite, I’m just completely ashamed.”
Andy Mills and Luke Vander Ploeg contributed reporting.
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