FREDERICTON — Former Progressive Conservative deputy leader Robert Gauvin has flipped to the Liberals and took a swipe at his former colleagues Tuesday, calling them "ice cold" when it comes to helping the most vulnerable.
Liberal Leader Kevin Vickers introduced his new candidate for the riding of Shediac Bay-Dieppe on the first full day of New Brunswick's provincial election campaign.
"Robert's values and principles are entirely aligned with our party," Vickers told reporters in Scoudouc, N.B., a small community in the heart of the riding.
"He is committed to the protection and promotion of linguistic rights in New Brunswick, a more unified province and the absolute protection of emergency health-care services in the province's hospitals."
Gauvin left the Progressive Conservatives in February to sit as an Independent in protest over health-care reforms that would have seen the closure of emergency rooms in some rural hospitals.
The government later scrapped the idea because of public backlash and gaps identified in the plan.
Gauvin told reporters Tuesday he quit the government of Progressive Conservative Leader Blaine Higgs because it lacked compassion.
"This government right now is ice cold," Gauvin said. "In New Brunswick, we have to take care of the people with the most challenges and we're not doing that right now."
Gauvin, who is the son of former Progressive Conservative cabinet minister Jean Gauvin, won the only Tory seat in northern New Brunswick in the 2018 provincial election. He said he didn't ask for and wasn't promised anything to make the jump to the Liberal party.
At a campaign stop Tuesday in Oromocto, Higgs said Gauvin is a good fit for the Liberals because both have walked away from tough issues.
"Last week we experienced a no-show," Higgs said, referring to Vickers walking out of negotiations over a power-sharing agreement. The failure to strike a deal with the opposition pushed Higgs to call the snap election.
"When the discussions became of substance, the opposition decided not to participate and they didn't come back. So maybe Mr. Gauvin is in the right camp, because in that regard, because walking away, it wouldn't be the first time," Higgs said.
The Tory leader promised improved services for mental health and addiction if his government is re-elected.
"The rising level of mental illness and addiction in our province is alarming," Higgs said. "It's a crisis that is eroding the very fabric of our communities and destroying our families."
He said a recent survey indicated over half of New Brunswickers felt they were at higher risk of mental health problems due to COVID-19. That increased risk was driven by isolation, financial stress, substance abuse, and a jump in domestic and intimate partner violence.
The Tory leader said he would continue the five-year mental health plan his government put in place, which includes better access to counselling and better training for health workers.
"We need to do more on the front end of this crisis," Higgs said. "That means investing more in prevention and early intervention."
Green Leader David Coon on Tuesday introduced Green members Kevin Arseneau and Megan Mitton as his campaign co-chairs.
Coon said he hadn't had the opportunity to review Higgs' announcement on mental health, but said the Tory leader would have to spend money in order for it to work.
"He's a very parsimonious person and it's against his nature to spend money," Coon said, outside the legislature. "On some things as important as mental health care, he has to be ready to spend the money where it matters."
As for Gauvin, Coon wished him luck with the Liberals.
"That's the other old party in this province that continues to play old politics and spend most of their time involved in political bickering rather than finding real solutions for New Brunswickers," Coon said.
Higgs announced Monday he's sending voters to the polls Sept. 14 after failing to reach a power-sharing deal with the opposition. It is the first provincial election campaign in the country since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Interim NDP Leader Mackenzie Thomason issued a statement Tuesday criticizing Higgs and Vickers for prompting an election during the pandemic.
Campaign signs popped up across the province overnight as the 28-day campaign entered its first full day. While the candidate signs are a common sight during elections, the rest of the campaign will be much different because of COVID-19 concerns.
The parties will be placing a greater emphasis on social media and mail-outs rather than door-to-door canvassing. Both the Liberals and Progressive Conservatives had technical issues streaming their announcements online Tuesday.
At dissolution, the Progressive Conservatives and Liberals each had 20 seats in the legislature, while the Greens and the People's Alliance each had three. There were two vacant seats and one Independent.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 18, 2020.
Kevin Bissett, The Canadian Press