Third Party Leader’s Response to Speech from the Throne, 8 November 2016
On 8 November 2016 David Coon delivered his response the the Speech from the Throne for the 3rd Session of the 58th Legislative Assembly. Below is the text in the language in which it was spoken:
Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to rise to provide a response to the Speech from the Throne on behalf of the Third Party in the House.
I want to acknowledge that we meet on the unceded territory of the Wolastoqey people and that our relationship is governed by treaties of peace and friendship recognized by the Constitution of Canada.
It is a privilege to serve the people of Fredericton South in our provincial parliament and to sit as the Leader of the Green Party.
My Mother, Iris Page, is sitting in the public gallery today, and I want to thank her for all she did to lay down a strong foundation for the person I am today.
Mr. Speaker, it has been a 162 years since responsible government was achieved in New Brunswick. It’s called responsible government, because the Executive Council – the Cabinet – is responsible to the representatives of the people, the private members of this Legislature. And through us – responsible to the people. It was around Charles Fisher, that Albert Smith from Westmorland County, William Steeves from Hillsborough , Leonard Tilley from Gagetown, William Ritchie from Saint John, Charlotte County’s James Brown and Miramichi lawyer John Mercer Johnson gathered to defeat what amounted to a Family Compact government. The Smashers, as they were known, brought responsible government to New Brunswick and they brought transformational growth to our economy.
Monsieur le Président, nous avons besoin de rétablir le gouvernement responsable, y redonner sa place et encore une fois amèner d’importantes croissances transformationnelles à notre province.
Over the years, the ability of MLAs to hold the Cabinet accountable has been eroded by the exercise of overly strict party discipline and the concentration of power in the Office of the Premier. This has undermined the point of responsible government. That is why I want to see the roles and responsibilities of private members clearly articulated through our rules of order in this session. I encourage the government to relax its use of the three-line whip so that members on the government side can exercise their agency, and fulfill their responsibilities as private members.
Mr. Speaker, I support many of the important social, economic and governance goals the government has presented in its Throne Speech.
• To create a better educated population
• To reduce poverty
• To improve how seniors are treated and cared for
• To ensure New Brunswickers have access to mental health services
• To address the root causes of obesity
• To build the first truly digital government in North America
• To transition to a low carbon economy
Mr. Speaker, I support these goals. It is essential that we reach them in a timely manner. It is imperative that we get started immediately.
However, the Throne Speech gave little indication of the path the government will take to achieve them. There is too much exploring promised and too little concrete action proposed.
Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to see the priority government is now placing on education.
Education is essential to ensure that every child, youth and adult can reach their full potential and determine their own destiny. This is a key principle for the Green Party.
I was a member of the advisory committee for the 10 Year Education Plan, so I undertook a number of consultations to listen to educators, education scholars, parents and students.
They proposed concrete action. For example:
• When it is beneficial to students’ learning they should be periodically grouped according to their abilities or interest outside their regular classroom.
• Teachers need more resources to effectively serve students with learning disabilities, special needs, and behavioural challenges.
• Licensing should be based on a teacher’s area of academic concentration and expertise.
• Schools should have more autonomy to work out solutions that best meet the needs of their students.
• Education must be focused on the development of the whole child: intellectual, physical, social and emotional.
• We need increased emphasis on critical thinking, on practical life skills, and on how students can contribute to improving society.
• Students need to be better prepared for the transition from middle to high school and from high school to post-secondary education.
• Curriculum needs to be broadened to reflect the diversity of students and help students learn about who lives here, and how to live together.
• Both immersion and French need to be improved, so that a greater proportion of students graduate with the ability to live and work in French.
It is impossible to obtain the life you want for yourself and for your children when you are imprisoned by poverty. We know that poverty undermines the ability of children to learn to their potential. And we know that it is responsible for poor health.
The Common Front for Social Justice reports that 100,000 New Brunswickers live below the poverty line. That’s one person out of seven. They are largely people who depend on income assistance, who are low-wage earners and seniors.
And we know the number of people living in deep poverty is increasing.
I applaud the Throne Speech’s commitment to reduce poverty “through various policies and investments.” Mr. Speaker, I have some suggestions for the kind of investments and policies which should be adopted.
In 1967, Dr. Martin Luther King wrote his book“Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community:”. It was his last book before he was assassinated. In it he said:
“I am now convinced that the simplest approach will prove to be the most effective – the solution to poverty is to abolish it directly by a now widely discussed matter: the guaranteed income. The curse of poverty has no justification in our age.”
In the immediate term, income assistance rates must be raised. I cannot understand on what moral foundation our current level of income assistance is based. It is inadequate to ensure individuals and families can acquire the basic necessities of life. Everyone should have the food, shelter, medicine, child care and safety they need.
Earlier this year the House of Commons Finance Committee recommended a pilot study on basic income. I would have seen this as an open invitation by our government to negotiate for the pilot study to be carried out in New Brunswick – perhaps in an urban neighbourhood in Saint John and in a rural community elsewhere in the province.
My experience working with constituents living in poverty has taught me much. One thing is clear. The current system, in which the public servants at Social Development must work, is not serving New Brunswickers well. Compassion and good sense has been squeezed out of the system.
The other day, a constituent of mine, a recovered addict, was offered a subsidized apartment in a crack house. Women lose their social assistance because they are sharing an apartment. Elderly women living in NB Housing apartments bar their doors at night and contemplate arming themselves against intruders trying to get into their homes.
Navigating the system is a nightmare of hitting brick walls, jumping through hoops and at times, being treated like trash. Why do we treat people like this? I want to see a reorganization of the Department of Social Development based on input from the public that uses its services and those who work in the system.
I recently visited the social enterprise hub in Saint John and was so impressed with the great work being done there. The Learning Exchange is creating social enterprises to help attach people to the work force – people who are living in the context of intergenerational poverty. This represents an integrated approach to economic and social development, which we need more of.
A Social Enterprise Strategy was prepared for the provincial government in 2014 but it has sat on the shelf, gathering dust. I truly hope this government will take it off the shelf and implement it.
There is a crying need for low-income housing. It’s the number one request I get in my constituency office. Too many people are housing insecure, facing eviction, living in unsafe housing, or homeless altogether. The commitment to develop a long-term housing strategy is welcome, but with our shelters full and 5,400 people waiting on the waiting list for subsidized housing, there are some short-term measures desperately needed.
Housing First initiatives to tackle homelessness in Saint John, Fredericton and Moncton require sufficient funding. These programs aim to put homeless New Brunswickers into apartments with the necessary supports. They have developed their plans, they have issued countless report cards, and continue to count the growing homeless. But what they really need, is the funding to implement their plans to put a roof over people’s heads and deliver the services they need.
Shelters need to be seen as part of the Housing First strategy and supported as part of the solution.
More second stage housing is needed for women and their children leaving violent relationships. In particular, second stage housing needs to be built for First Nations women and children leaving shelters such as Gignoo House in Fredericton.
I am pleased to see the Throne Speech makes a commitment to a long-term housing strategy. This is much needed. It is my intent to promote structural change that would restore New Brunswick Housing to a fully functioning provincial agency – removing housing responsibilities from the Department of Social Development. In the short-term, there is an urgent need to address the safety of low income housing owned and operated by our provincial government.
To help me better represent seniors in our provincial parliament, I established a Seniors Round Table shortly after being elected. One thing is clear; seniors do not feel well served. I have heard repeatedly from seniors from different parts of the province that they would like to see an officer of the Legislature created to be an advocate for seniors.
I have also repeatedly heard the desire to have senior care be transferred to the Department of Health from Social Development to improve care and access to it.
The expectations are high for the recommendations of the Council on Aging. It is essential that government move swiftly to adopt them, providing the necessary resources and institutional capacity to effectively deliver them. This requires a reorganization of the Department of Social Development, beyond naming a Minister responsible for seniors and long-term care and the creation of a Policy Delivery Unit devoted to seniors.
Access to Mental Health Care
I was happy to see the Throne Speech commit to ensuring people have access to mental health care. The Deputy Minister of Health agreed with me at the Public Accounts Committee, that we have a crisis in access to mental health care in our province. The funding is wholly inadequate.
In New Brunswick we spend less than 4 percent of our health budget on mental health care. The national average is 7 percent, and the Canadian Mental Health Association has called this inadequate. It has set 9 percent as a target for provinces to meet.
Our mental health professionals are doing the best they can with the meagre resources they are given to work with, but they cannot keep up with demand never mind instituting necessary follow-up and outreach initiatives.
The decision to place child and youth teams (the so-called Integrate Service Delivery) in schools across the province is an important one. This will make a difference in the lives of students and I look forward to full coverage for the entire province by 2018.
The fact remains; we have a rudimentary mental health care system that needs to be brought into the 21st century. Two of the top ten chronic illnesses in New Brunswick are mental illnesses.
Too many people suffering from mental illness have not been diagnosed. Many are unable to get effective treatment or therapy. We throw the mentally ill into prison, and take away their prescriptions. And we don’t speak of those who have taken their lives.
I’m still waiting for the Deputy Minister of Health to provide me with a report on the annual number of suicides by region over time.
In the last 5 years, police calls related to mental illness have increased by 40%. Police chiefs I have spoken to cannot understand why the criminal justice system is handling New Brunswickers with mental illness – an not the health system. An immediate step I would make is to re-establish mental health courts to re-direct people back into the health system and away from the criminal justice system.
I encourage members to watch Laura Brown’s interviews on CTV with Amanda Browne and her Mother Ginette DesRoches of Miramichi. Amanda is struggling with multiple mental health issues and has tried to take her life more than once. Her Mother doesn’t know where to turn. Both were so brave to consent to these interviews. We can’t let them down.
Those with the wealth to do so are sending their family members out of the province for mental health care because they can’t get it here. That’s not an option for most New Brusnwickers, like Ginette and Amanda.
The way forward is to increase spending on our mental health care system in the next budget to the national average of 7 percent.
The Throne Speech once again describes economic growth as a top priority. It was gratifying to see a commitment that economic growth must be sustainable. In fact, it must be transformational given the challenges we face.
For economic growth is only a means to an end. It’s not a goal in itself, like: full employment, social contentment, economic justice, or reduced dependence on fossil fuels to limit the scourge of climate change.
Unless carefully managed, economic growth for growth’s sake can drive people out of work – replacing them with technology. It can concentrate wealth in the hands of the few, or accelerate climate change. All of these negative trends are issues we face today. These are cold-heartedly referred to as negative externalities in economic talk.
Unless market failures such as negative externalities are curtailed they can undermine our quality of life, and the very future we wish for our children. This is an essential role of government. Which is why it is so important that the Throne Speech repeats the Premier’s commitment to help New Brunswick transition to a low carbon economy. Where, with thoughtful intervention, the externalities will be far more positive than negative.
To be clear, negative externalities occur when some of the costs for refining gasoline or generating electricity, or manufacturing pulp and paper are foisted on individuals, communities and even future generations. Health costs resulting from pollution, higher infrastructure and food costs resulting from climate change are examples. The overcutting of forests and the overconsumption of gasoline are both examples of externalities – that is the failure to include the full cost of producing goods in their prices.
Therefore, the market’s capacity to present society with an accurate assessment of the relative costs of producing things miserably fails.
Climate change represents a massive market failure on a global scale. This is imposing serious costs on people, communities and our future. This is why government intervention is required to make the transition to a low carbon society and economy.
The incentives, regulations and carbon pricing recommended in the Select Committee on Climate Change’s report are the means government has to redress this market failure. This is how we encourage production whose external effects are desirable rather than those that are damaging.
The transformational growth represented by a transition to a low carbon economy presents a host of new opportunities for economic development and work in both our cities and in rural New Brunswick. Adopting the recommendations of the Select Committee would lay the groundwork for seizing those opportunities.
However, leadership is required. Which is why it is so important that the Premier establish and chair a cabinet committee to oversee the transition to a low carbon economy. Similarly, the mandate letters for all Ministers must include clear direction on their responsibility for contributing to the transformative growth represented by the transition to a low carbon economy.
This has the potential to revitalize our rural economies that are suffering even as our urban economies thrive.
For example, the Throne Speech points out that a food import replacement strategy can grow our economy. As I said in presenting my Local Food Security Act, by ensuring more of the $2.6 billion New Brunswickers spend on imported food is spent on food produced at home instead, our rural economies will greatly benefit.
The same thinking can be extended to energy. Billions are spent on importing oil, coal and natural gas into the province. The associated production and consumption are exacerbating the crisis in our climate. An energy import replacement strategy based on producing more energy inside New Brunswick with renewable resources would represent transformational growth, for rural communities and urban communities both.
I was disappointed that the Throne Speech did not reinforce the commitment made in the provincial growth plan to support regional economic development. This is such an important initiative. Just as people should be able to exercise their right to self-determination, so should communities. This requires a well-developed local economy strategy based on the use and stewardship of local assets – ingenuity, skills, experience, land and renewable resources.
It also enables the community to deal with outside industry that wants to come, rather than having it dealt to them by the provincial government.
The challenge is the provincial government no longer has the institutional capacity to facilitate regional and community development. The Department of Economic Development was eliminated. Opportunities New Brunswick does not have this mandate, nor does the Jobs Board.
I will put forward ideas for new institutions that will work with communities to foster local development.
The Liberal election platform committed to facilitating the establishment of locally led economic development agencies that are proactive and understand the local community’s challenges, assets and aspirations. It is puzzling that in its third Speech from the Throne, the government has not announced its intention to move forward. Yet it is these locally led economic development agencies which would be best positioned to see the opportunities for transformational growth that the transition to a low carbon economy will bring.
In this Third Session of the Legislature I will reintroduce the Green Jobs Act bill, as we ran out of time to get it through the committee stage last session. If adopted it would create the conditions for transformational economic growth in the construction, heating, power generation, and transportation sectors. It would energize their associated supply chains. It would help eliminate energy waste so families and businesses have more money to spend in their local economy on their needs and priorities. It would catalyze growth in the green building, renewable energy, and clean tech sectors. All of which will spur job creation in rural and urban New Brunswick.
I will also introduce amendments to the Crown Lands and Forests Act to end the overcutting of the Crown forests.
To reduce the political influence of special interests, I will introduce amendments to the Political Process Financing Act that would render corporations and trade unions ineligible to make political donations
To increase fiscal transparency, I will introduce a motion to require the public reporting of all tax expenditures. This way, New Brunswickers will know what it is costing us to provide these subsidies and the purpose for those subsidies.
To improve the effectiveness of the Legislative Assembly, I will re-introduce a motion to describe the roles and responsibilities of MLAs. The Premier and his cabinet can only exercise power insofar as they maintain the confidence of a majority the members of the Legislative Branch of government. This is a first step to relaxing the strict party discipline that is undermining the restraint that the Legislative Assembly is designed to impose.
I will also reintroduce my bill to amend the Education Act to implement one of the calls for action from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Namely to make mandatory the teaching of our treaty, historical and contemporary relationships with First Nations within our public school system.
At the Order of New Brunswick Awards ceremony I attended last week, her honour the Lieutenant Governor said:
The recipients share a common belief – a belief in New Brunswick – in its history, and in its future. I saw this in action at the New Brunswick Music Awards and on the week-end at the Silver Wave Film Awards.
She said we are officially bilingual and proudly multicultural. She spoke of New Brunswick as a place where we listen to each other’s stories, sing each other’s songs; a place where we cheer each other’s victories and mourn each other’s losses. And I would add, in times of struggle and adversity we help each other out.
It is my hope that in the course of this sitting, during the months to come, we never lose sight of what it means to be a New Brunswicker.
Thank you Mr. Speaker.