Budget Debate – 10 February 2017

Here is the video and transcript of my speech, recorded in the language in which it was spoken.

Economic Transition

Mr. Speaker, a budget is supposed to tell us where we are headed. Just two months ago, this government released its strategy to propel New Brunswick’s transition to a low-carbon economy. The strategy largely reflects what New Brunswickers recommended to the Select Committee on Climate Change during the public hearings it held around the province last summer. Yet this budget does little to say where we are headed with respect to the 118 commitments made in the transition strategy.

How does this budget support a transformation of our infrastructure to make it resilient in the face of intense storms and support our transformation to a low carbon economy so we stop contributing to the problem?

The opportunity should be seized to make deliberate spending decisions to take positive action that will protect us from the destructive weather that global warming is bringing us and to help us make the transition to a low carbon economy that will shrink our energy costs.

Transitioning to a low carbon economy and reimagining our infrastructure so that it is robust and resilient represent transformative changes that will provide new economic opportunities and new jobs for New Brunswickers. It will also lower energy costs for families and businesses since ending energy waste, increasing energy efficiency, and reducing the overall demand for energy to supply heat and power will be the centerpiece of this transition. Concurrent with this will be a shift away from oil and gasoline.

Les gens du Nouveau-Brunswick en sont venus à trop bien connaître les longues pannes de courant, les routes et les ponts endommagés, les maisons et les entreprises inondées et l’érosion côtière causée par les tempêtes et les inondations liées au réchauffement planétaire. Le renforcement, la relocalisation et la restructuration de nos infrastructures pour qu’elles soient solides et viables fourniront en outre de nouvelles possibilités économiques pour les gens du Nouveau-Brunswick.

New Brunswickers are ready to take action, New Brunswick businesses that want to be part of this transition are multiplying: Biomass Solutions at Groupe Savoie in Kedgwick, LaForge Bioenvironmental in St. André, Maritime Geothermal in Petitcodiac, Terratrust in Moncton, Stash Energy, Southern Exposure Construction, Rise, Naveco Power, and Rising Tide Technologies in Fredericton. The list goes on, but implementation of the transition strategy is needed to create conditions for their growth, for innovation and for new start-ups.

The problem is this budget does not provide the resources necessary to implement the government’s transition strategy.

To lead the transition, the Premier has created a cabinet committee which he chairs. This is an essential step, but if it is to accomplish anything is must be quarterbacked by the Climate Change Secretariat whose budget hardly budged. Surely the Premier understands that if he doesn’t have the horsepower to implement his transition strategy it will remain on the shelf.

It is true that the government is taking steps again this year, through its capital budget, to invest in energy savings for government-owned buildings, with a budget of $20.3 million – a 50% increase over last year. Which is great. But there is no follow-through to help low income families, middle-class homeowners, or businesses to cut their heating costs and consequentially their carbon footprint.

I was particularly disappointed the budget for the Department of Social Development’s Low Income Energy Efficiency Program did not budge from the $2 million allocated last year, despite its success and despite the long waiting list. This program is helping people barely getting by to cut their heating costs by as much as 25%. That’s money in their pocket that they can spend on food, on medicine, on their children.

Last time I checked, the waiting list was over 18 months. The government’s transition strategy explicitly committed to expanding capacity and programs to support low-income New Brunswickers, but this budget failed to do so. Why?

La stratégie de transition prévoit en outre un financement soutenu pour fournir aux familles et aux propriétaires d’entreprises des incitatifs financiers et des mécanismes de financement visant à réduire les frais liés à la consommation d’énergie. Or, le budget ne prévoit rien pour mettre en oeuvre ces mesures importantes.

A deliberate decision should have been made in this budget to take positive action so New Brunswick families and businesses would have the capacity to cut their energy costs and shrink their carbon footprint.

Similarly, the commitment to support the increased uptake of renewable energy for heating homes, businesses and institutions like hospitals, schools and nursing home is nowhere reflected in this budget.

En ce qui concerne le renforcement, la restructuration ou la relocalisation de nos infrastructures, la stratégie de transition énonce un engagement précis à l’égard d’une collaboration avec Énergie NB et le ministère des Transports et de l’Infrastructure en vue d’établir des plans d’adaptation aux changements climatiques pour toutes les infrastructures essentielles d’ici à 2020. Sans un secrétariat des changements climatiques doté d’un financement adéquat, je ne vois pas comment le travail essentiel peut être réalisé.

Private Management of Public Services

Mr. Speaker, budgets describe how a government intends to protect and empower its citizens.

When it comes to jobs, this budget includes the privatization of management services for cleaning, food and orderly services in our hospitals. We are told this means 280 jobs will be lost, patient safety could be at risk, and hospitals become exempted from the local food strategy. This neither protects, nor empowers these New Brunswickers.

By contracting out management services, we wipe out our ability to manage for ourselves, putting our faith in multinational corporations to manage our affairs for us. It makes no sense to put a new layer of corporate managers between our medical staff and the people who clean our hospitals and feed our family members. We need locally run management that is publicly accountable and in the service of the public, not private shareholders. The decisions on how to keep superbugs out of our hospitals and the source and type of food that is fed to our family members recovering in hospital will serve a corporate agenda, not a public one. It is no wonder that Vitalité is against this move. So am I.

Le budget alimente l’angoisse que tant de personnes éprouvent relativement à l’éventuelle décision de privatiser la gestion de notre programme extramural. Nous devons accroître notre capacité de gestion pour offrir des services à la population plutôt que de la vendre.

Le discours du budget indique que le gouvernement a l’intention de former d’autres partenariats public-privé afin d’accroître le nombre de lits dans les foyers de soins, même si la vérificatrice générale a constaté que les partenariats du genre dans le secteur de l’éducation ont coûté au Nouveau-Brunswick plus que ce qu’ils ont permis d’économiser.

This parade to privatization ignores the health care services privatization disaster in British Columbia and the problematic experiences in Ontario and Quebec, with some hospitals in all three provinces abandoning the contracting out of management services.

Caring about Health

It is a good thing to see an increase in the budget for Community Health Services. This is an area that must be significantly expanded, the government is moving in the right direction. The expansion of the Downtown Fredericton Community Health Centre and the establishment of the Charlotte County Collaborative Wellness Centre are two good examples of this.

The budget should contain a deliberate decision to end unacceptable wait times in our emergency rooms. To achieve this, we need to invest in additional medical staff for our emergency departments. Forty percent of people coming through the emergency room doors are status 3 patients who absolutely must be seen by a doctor as soon as possible. The provincial target for those us who fall into that category is that 80% should be seen within 30 minutes of arrival in the ER.

In the face of chronic understaffing, ERs are missing this target by 4, 5, even 6 times. This is a serious patient safety issue which should be addressed by this budget.

At the other end of the hospital, we have seniors in need of nursing care, forced to live in hospital rooms for lack of anywhere to go. This is no life for anyone and it is causing surgeries to be cancelled for lack of hospital beds. I see no sense of urgency in this budget to solve this problem.

The past practice of building nursing homes to replace aging ones without adding extra beds has got to end.

Il est bien de voir une petite augmentation de la somme prévue dans le budget pour les services de santé mentale, qui correspond au financement ciblé fourni par le gouvernement fédéral. Toutefois, il faut augmenter rapidement et considérablement le budget pour les services de santé mentale afin de répondre aux besoins des personnes du Nouveau-Brunswick aux prises avec une maladie mentale.

This budget for mental health care is 4% of the overall health care budget. The national average is 7%, and the Canadian Mental Health Association advises it needs to reach 9%.

New Brunswick exceeds the national average rate for many mental illnesses and there incidence is increasing. The media has showered attention on the struggles of people with PTSD, which affects 1 in 100 New Brunswickers. One in eight New Brunswickers experience depression in their lifetime.

One in ten experience anxiety disorder, and one in 35 struggle with bipolar disorder. We have a long way to go to providing adequate mental health care, and the need is urgent.

I applaud the government for keeping its commitment in this budget to roll out the Integrated Service Delivery program to all schools in the province. This places Child and Youth Teams in our schools to work directly with youth when mental illness, behaviour problems, and addictions first appear.

Addictions

I note that the budget for addiction services has not increased despite the fact that New Brunswick’s addiction services are inadequately funded.

Sixteen percent of New Brunswickers consume alcohol at levels that put them at long-term risk of liver disease and certain cancers. Twelve percent consume enough alcohol to cause injury and overdose. I fear government has not yet come to grips with the conflict between its promotion of alcohol consumption through NB Liquor’s marketing efforts and the rate of abuse and addictions that too many New Brunswickers struggle with.

More than one in five New Brunswickers experiences an alcohol or drug use disorder in his or her lifetime.

Le gouvernement du Nouveau-Brunswick tire des recettes d’environ 160 millions par année d’Alcool NB. Le budget pour l’année qui commence prévoit 20,4 millions pour le financement des services de traitement des dépendances, ce qui est comparable à la somme de 20,2 millions que prévoit le budget de l’année en cours. De plus, le budget pour le mieux-être accordé au ministère du Développement social est passé de 7,3 à 7 millions de dollars.

We need a budget that comes to grips with addictions. The Sarah Tracy Rehab Centre closed in Tracy last year. It deserves support. There are few people whose family or extended family hasn’t been touched by addictions. We know how destructive addictions can be, and everyone knows that spending money on addiction programs also saves millions of dollars for the health care and justice systems.

Perpetuating Poverty

Mr. Speaker, there are roughly 100,000 New Brunswickers living in poverty. 22,000 families and individuals receive social assistance from the provincial government. According to the Department of Social Development, almost half (10,000) of those receiving social assistance are people who will never work, 6,210 in fact, are disabled. Another 8,000 people are not employable without heroic efforts, leaving just 4,000 who have the possibility of attaching to the workforce. This means over 80 percent of those receiving social assistance cannot work.

Mr. Speaker it must be galling for those who have no other choice but to try to live on social assistance to hear people say the best social program is a job. Eighty percent of those on social assistance cannot work and yet we provide them with an income that is impossible to live on. In this case, we in fact need a better social program.

One again with this budget, income assistance rates remain frozen. Why does government after government punish the most vulnerable with an income that is designed not to meet their basic needs? Income assistance rates need to reflect the costs of providing the necessities of life.

Two months ago, Prince Edward Island’s legislature unanimously passed a motion by Green Party Leader Peter Bevan-Baker to develop a basic income pilot project in partnership with the federal government. Maybe there is a long-term solution here that we should explore as well.

Public Housing

One thing that makes it possible to afford the basics for those living in poverty is subsidized housing. New Brunswick owns 836 apartment buildings, 153 buildings for seniors and 633 buildings for families. Cuts over the years have reduced services to the Province’s tenants, putting it into the category of absentee landlord for many.

Superintendents have been removed from buildings so there is no one to turn to in the apartment buildings, security has declined, the buildings are in decline, community development programs have been abandoned, and tenants are being charged for services that most commercial apartments provide for free. For example, I have an 84 year old constituent living in public housing who was charged $50 to be let into her building after she lost her keys, and $40 to have them replaced.

The $6.5 million in this budget for affordable housing received from the federal government is welcome, and I am pleased to see some of it will be used to improve affordable housing for seniors. The fact remains, that there is insufficient affordable housing and this budget falls short of addressing that reality.

The waiting list for subsidized housing continues to grow from 5,371 in 2013 to 5,889 in 2015.

Long-Term Living

The new aging strategy just released by the Council on Aging made a series of important recommendations about tackling the dementia crisis, creating age-friendly communities, reducing social isolation, and innovative living arrangements. Government has been focused on improving home care to enable more seniors to live independently. This is laudable; however, there are other areas that need urgent attention.

Our communities need to be more age-friendly. This requires provincial funding to municipalities and rural communities dedicated to meeting age-friendly objectives including ice-free sidewalks in neighbourhoods with large numbers of seniors, buses equipped to address visual and hearing impairments, rural transportation services to connect rural communities and small towns with hospitals and shopping areas in our cities. It’s one thing to decide to brand your community as age-friendly, but without provincial investments in age-friendly infrastructure and services, it means nothing. And I see nothing in this budget that will help our communities become more age-friendly.

More than 3,000 seniors living at home suffer from some form of dementia. Significant numbers remain undiagnosed. Action needs to be taken now to address this growing dementia crisis. That means investments are needed to assure early detection and diagnosis and to support family care-givers with respite opportunities. And there was supposed to be a tax credit of $1,275 for those who care for an aging parent, or an adult child with special needs, in their own home. I don’t see how this budget responds to this pressing need.

The decision to give the Child and Youth Advocate responsibility for seniors is a positive one, but to be effective he needs sufficient funding to effectively serve seniors. I am concerned the initial budget provided the Legislative Officer for this year is inadequate to get this new office up and running smoothly.

Doing the Same Thing for the Economy and Expecting Different Outcomes
If it’s one thing every government does, it is to make the economy its number one priority. So how come our economy, or I should say our economies aren’t in better shape. Frederiction, Moncton, Riverview and Dieppe are doing well. The same can’t be said for the economies in other regions.

Over the past 20 years, the Tories had their go at the economy for 11 years and the Liberals for 9 years. The focus was largely on business development. Any emphasis on community development, rural development, or regional development was abandoned a long-time ago. Our villages and rural communities were left to scurry after the bread crumbs that were dropped willy-nilly around the countryside.

Ce qui manque au budget, c’est un soutien à l’élaboration de stratégies de développement économique visant les régions rurales et les petites villes. Même si le plan de croissance de la province prévoit une collaboration avec les régions afin de créer de telles stratégies, aucun investissement n’est envisagé pour créer la capacité institutionnelle nécessaire afin d’appliquer à l’échelle régionale des stratégies visant le développement économique des régions rurales et des petites villes. Une reconfiguration de la Société de développement régional pourrait combler un tel besoin.

The budget commitment to increase investment in tourism, if effectively applied, is a very positive step given the potential for growth that exists in every corner of the province.

It is also positive that the budget speech highlighted the $2.6 billion market for food that is now largely supplied by imports, and re-affirmed its commitment to implement the local food strategy. However, the strategy needs to be beefed up if it is going to significantly lead to a growing agriculture and food sector. An obvious area is to set targets for the use of local food in hospitals and nursing homes, but the march to privatize the management of food services is a barrier to doing this.

With regards to the forestry sector of our economy, the budget commits to invest nearly $2 million to protect softwood trees from budworm defoliation, “to ensure that this important economic sector continues to grow and thrive.” Meanwhile by failing to enforce its own laws and by failing to support the decisions of its Forest Products Commission to ensure private woodlot owners have proportional and managed access to the wood products market, this and previous governments have ensured this important economic sector in rural New Brunswick has been shriveling to the detriment of our rural communities.

Quant aux recettes prévues au budget, les recettes minimales que la province tire de la vente du bois de la Couronne continuent de susciter des préoccupations. Pour la deuxième année de suite, le budget prévoit des recettes de 68,1 millions de dollars, malgré une analyse selon laquelle le gouvernement sous-évalue largement le bois de feuillus récolté sur les terres de la Couronne. À des fins de comparaison, le budget prévoit des recettes de 164 millions provenant de la taxe sur le tabac.

Citizen Advocates

An important function of this Legislative Branch of Government is to provide citizens with Legislative Officers to advocate on their behalf to the Executive Branch and to the provincial parliament. I am talking about advocating for children, youth and seniors, for a citizen’s right to information, for a citizen’s right to be dealt with fairly by government, for a citizen’s right to be served by government institutions in either official language, for a citizen’s right to know that public funds are being spent effectively and efficiently, and for a citizens’ right to know who is lobbying their elected representatives.

Any objective assessment of the budget for our legislative officers would say they are underfunded given their mandates. Yet once gain this government has frozen the overall budget for our Legislative Officers – despite inadequate budgets, despite added responsibilities, despite growing requests from the public, despite proposals by the Legislative Officers for improvements to their budgets, zap their frozen again.

The Auditor General is operating on the budget not much bigger than her colleague is provided in PEI. Given the size of our provincial budget, she is about $1 million short compared to other jurisdictions.

The Child and Youth Advocate has added responsibilities for seniors. The Language Commissioner has added responsibilities for professional associations. And the Integrity Commissioner will be expected to set up the Lobby Registry this fall with no dedicated budget at all. It is the responsibility of the Legislative Branch of government to set the budgets of Legislative Officers, but the Executive Branch doesn’t see it that way, so the interests of the people, as expressed through their representatives, gets circumvented – again.

Mr. Speaker, a budget represents an annual opportunity to make deliberate spending decisions to take positive action that will protect and empower the citizens of New Brunswick. The government has laid out its general priorities in the budget, with an emphasis on building the capacity of our public education system – a laudable goal. I have spoken to those priorities which I know are shared by many of my constituents, and appear not to be reflected in this budget.

We will learn more about those priorities in the Standing Committee on Estimates and Fiscal Policy in the coming weeks.

Thank you Mr. Speaker.