Fear Not the Deficit

by David Coon
March 6, 2015

"The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed -- and hence clamorous to be led to safety -- by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary."-- H.L. Mencken

New Brunswick's financial situation is nowhere near as frightening as some would have you believe. There is no question that we have challenges. Past governments made mistakes, which aggravated our fiscal challenges arising from the 2008 recession, but there is no reason to make decisions which would undermine our ability to secure the well-being, sustainability and equality of our society. In fact, we should explicitly adopt these objectives as the overarching ones to building a secure and sustainable future for our children and theirs.

New Brunswick's deficit for next year is projected to be $255 million. Between 1991 and 1994 we experienced higher deficits, as we did from 1982 to 1985. Relative to the size of our economy, our deficit is comparable to those of Nova Scotia and PEI. RBC projects New Brunswick will be in surplus by 2018.

What about the debt, you might ask. According to RBC's latest numbers, New Brunswick's per capita debt level falls right in the middle of provincial debts, with Nova Scotia, Newfoundland, Ontario and Québec exceeding our own.

We face challenges, but they are not insurmountable by any means, nor are they extraordinary. My bigger concern is for those who would exploit the fearfulness New Brunswickers feel about our financial situation in pursuit of their own self-interest.

Here are the steps I believe we should take to strengthen our financial positon, and provide us with the means to invest in meeting real needs like addressing youth mental health, providing early learning and childcare, improving public transit, and ensuring our seniors are well cared for in appropriate settings.

At $2.5 billion, our health budget is our single biggest expenditure. The Premier should make it his top priority to improve the federal health transfer by having it adjusted to reflect our demographics. It is a simple matter of fairness. Provinces with aging populations face higher health care costs. This could bring an additional $200 million into our health care budget, but it will require a sustained effort. 

Maritime Premier worked long and hard in the 1950s to ensure the nation's wealth is distributed fairly to ensure every province can support comparable levels of public services with comparable levels of taxation. Today, we owe it to our seniors to ensure we do the same for their health care.

At the same time, we need to move primary health care and senior care out of our hospitals. Our hospitals are intended to heal the sick and mend the injured. We must accelerate the establishment of collaborative care teams in community health centres to deliver accessible and preventative health care that solitary doctors cannot provide. And we must provide accessible senior care. Emergency departments must be focused on emergencies and hospital rooms must be for the sick and injured. To provide primary health care and senior care in our hospitals is unfair to those affected and is very expensive. The same can be said for reproductive health care, which can be provided far more compassionately and at a much lower cost in publicly funded clinics.

In terms of additional revenue, the Premier could generate $150 million a year by placing a small $10 per tonne carbon charge on fossil fuel imports, a portion of which could be invested to reduce emissions by improving public transit, while the balance would help alleviate our deficit. As Québec has found, the simplest way to charge for carbon is at the refinery where the oil is imported, and in our case, additionally at NB Power which imports coal, along with the general and single end-use gas franchises which import natural gas, exempting that portion of the carbon which can be attributed to supplying export markets.

As for economic development, we need to pursue long-term jobs not short-term pipeline construction jobs. Government should create the conditions to propel the retrofit of our housing and building stock, which would create 600 to 1,400 jobs per year according to a 2012 study commissioned by the New Brunswick government. The Crown Lands and Forests Act needs to be overhauled so that greater numbers of long-run forestry jobs are created from the use of timber on Crown lands, as is the case in neighbouring provinces and states. The abundant renewable energy resources available in New Brunswick should be developed locally to provide jobs in generating clean electricity, supplying green heat, and manufacturing biofuels rather than looking to the non-renewable fossil fuels of the past. In the face of the climate crisis, deepening our economic dependence on fossil fuel production and use no longer represents progress, rather it will undermine our well-being.

As our sister Maritime provinces have demonstrated, local economies can be significantly strengthened with the creation of Community Economic Development Investment Funds to ignite new start-ups to create local jobs. Investment dollars that would otherwise leave the province, are retained locally to work for New Brunswickers.

Instead of inciting fear and anxiety about fiscal cliffs and impending bankruptcy, as some are want to do, we need thoughtful discussion about real options for tackling our structural deficit. The options are there to face up to the challenge. As Leader of the Green Party of New Brunswick and MLA for Fredericton South I challenge all politicians in New Brunswick to put gotcha politics and partisan squabbles aside to work together to design sustainable fiscal policies so we can continue to provide high quality public services to all New Brunswickers.

- David Coon is the Leader of the Green Party of New Brunswick and the MLA for Fredericton South

'Things not as bad as politicians would have you believe' on Page A9 of Friday, March 06, 2015 issue of The Daily Gleaner