Robert Gauvin has resigned as deputy premier in the Progressive Conservative government and will sit as an independent MLA.
Gauvin made the announcement in Shippagan on Friday morning in front of a large crowd of supporters, who gave him a long standing ovation.
He said he was quitting over recently announced health reforms, including the nighttime closure of six hospital emergency rooms. One of them is in the Enfant-Jésus Hospital in nearby Caraquet, where Gauvin was born.
“This reform is an attack on rural New Brunswick,” he said, describing calls he received from people in other affected communities, including Sackville and Sussex.
One caller from Sussex “told me, ‘Mr. Gauvin, please don’t let us down. Please don’t let us down. You’ll need to do something more to make sure this doesn’t happen.'”
Gauvin is a first-term MLA for the riding of Shippagan-Lamèque-Miscou and had been the only francophone member of the provincial cabinet of Premier Blaine Higgs and of the PC caucus.
“Every government needs an Acadian voice,” Gauvin said just before the 2018 election campaign. “We’re here and we have to be heard.”
Government put into question
His departure puts in question the survival of the minority government of Blaine Higgs.
Assuming Speaker Daniel Guitard, a Liberal, steps down and rejoins his party’s caucus, the combined strength of the Liberals, Greens and Gauvin would be 24 seats.
The PCs and the People’s Alliance, who support the government in confidence votes, would have only 22, assuming a new speaker is selected from their ranks.
The Liberals have vowed to introduce a non-confidence motion to bring down the PC government and force an election.
And Friday afternoon, People’s Alliance Leader Kris Austin, whose party has supported the PCs on all confidence votes since it took power, said he may now withdraw that support.
“My biggest concern from day one has been ‘What do these folks [in the six communities] have as a backup?’ We’ve got a paramedic situation that’s still not stabilized.”
“I’ve been hearing over the last few days from citizens, I’ve been hearing from paramedics, I’ve been hearing from others, and it’s certainly galvanizing us towards not supporting these changes.”
The legislature resumes sitting March 10.
But Austin said he would not be surprised if Higgs calls an election before then.
“I’m kind of wondering if we’ll even get there, frankly. At this point I think the writing’s on the wall, and it’s up to the premier now to make that decision.”
Even so, he would not say how his MLAs will vote on the budget or on the non-confidence motion.
Bullied by people within the party
Gauvin told reporters after his announcement in Shippagan that he hasn’t decided whether to vote against the PC budget on March 10.
He said he felt “bullied” in recent days by people within the PC party who tried to pressure him.
“They said, ‘Robert, the people in your area elected you to work on behalf of Shippagan. Why are you working for Caraquet?’ … We have to stop navel gazing. Thirty-five percent of the people in my riding use that hospital.”
Gauvin was one of two PC MLAs who publicly opposed the health reforms. Bruce Northrup, whose Sussex-Fundy-St. Martin’s riding has another affected hospital, said Thursday he “cannot support” the changes.
Northrup said he plans to remain a PC member and support the government’s overall agenda but has left the door open to voting for the Liberal motion or against the budget.
“If there is a confidence vote that comes up, when and if, then I will have to make a decision then,” he said Thursday on CBC’s As It Happens. If the government falls, he said, “I’ll have a clear conscience.”
Green Leader David Coon said Friday that his party will support a non-confidence motion in the house.
He also said he’d welcome Gauvin as a Green Party candidate in the next election.
“I think he’d be a great candidate, absolutely,” he said, adding he was impressed by Gauvin’s courage and believed Gauvin’s father would be proud of him.