New Brunswick’s new minority Tory government has delivered a throne speech that looks for common ground with the Opposition parties, while avoiding controversy.
The speech, delivered Tuesday afternoon, promised a balanced budget by March 2020 or sooner – and suggested a page has been turned in the province.
“Sometimes we can hear our challenges repeated so often that we accept them as inevitable. Nothing is inevitable,” the government says in the speech, read by Lt.-Gov. Jocelyne Roy Vienneau.
“Nothing says small towns must grow smaller, nothing says children will struggle to learn, that young people will leave, that hospitals will close, and nothing says our population will decline,” she read.
The speech sets out five main themes – finances, energizing the private sector, health care, education and helping the poor.
The Tories were sworn-in two weeks ago, after defeating a Liberal minority government on the confidence vote on their throne speech with the support of the three-member People’s Alliance party.
Premier Blaine Higgs is proposing to launch an interactive pre-budget process in early 2019
“Every dollar we spend imposes a tax on the hard work of our children, our grandchildren. We are making it harder for them to afford great schools, modern hospitals and good roads. Borrowing without a plan for balance is not compassion. It is an act of inter-generational theft,” Roy Vienneau said.
Outside the legislature, Higgs said the previous Liberal government was warned by bond-rating agencies about a possible downgrade for New Brunswick, and he wants to prevent that.
“If we get a downgrade then we’ll be spending more money for interest. I’m going to do what we can between now and March 31 to show the credit rating agencies we are serious and will manage our fiscal situation,” Higgs said.
The government plans to phase-out the small business tax and the double property tax on secondary properties, as well as address rising rates for Worksafe NB.
Louis-Philippe Gautier, the director of provincial affairs for the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, said small businesses have been hit in recent years by things such as increases in the minimum wage, so cutting taxes and addressing Worksafe rates will be very welcome.
The government is also vowing to take a leadership role in eliminating trade barriers between provinces.
New Brunswick was at the centre of the debate over interprovincial trade after a New Brunswick man was charged for transporting too much alcohol from Quebec into New Brunswick.
The Supreme Court of Canada upheld New Brunswick’s right to impose trade restrictions aimed at protecting their citizens’ health, safety, and environment.
Higgs told The Canadian Press on Monday that he hopes to be able to forge ahead with lifting the moratorium on fracking for shale gas in the Sussex area and would speak with officials of a major natural gas player in the province, Corridor Resources, this week. But that issue was not specifically mentioned in the throne speech.
Jim Emberger, a spokesman for the New Brunswick Anti-Shale Gas Alliance, said he was pleased there was no mention of shale gas and that the speech spoke of addressing climate change and the green economy.
But Higgs said the issue is considered part of plans for “responsible resource development.”
People’s Alliance Leader Kris Austin – whose party has committed to supporting the Tory government for 18 months – said he asked the premier not to mention shale gas in the speech.
“In a minority government we don’t want to be tackling things that controversial at this stage,” Austin said.
Austin said his party’s three members will vote to support the throne speech.
Green Leader David Coon said he saw lots of “common ground” in the throne speech, but will need time to decide if he can vote to support it.
The throne speech also repeats Higgs’ promise to join several other provinces in the fight against the federal carbon tax, and says the government plans to create a legislative officer responsible for science and climate change.
Just a day after announcing changes to the provincial ambulance service, the new government is detailing other measures to improve the health care system, including a review of the contract with Medavie Health Services for home care services.
“Your government will work with urgency to reduce wait times for surgical procedures. The minister of health will work with regional health authorities to prioritize expenditures on actions that will most quickly reduce wait times,” Roy Vienneau said.
Liberal Leader Brian Gallant said he was pleased to see investments in homecare and talk of balancing the budget by 2020, but disappointed there was no mention of continuation of Liberal programs of free tuition and childcare.
The government is setting the goal of having 85 per cent of students reading at grade level by the end of Grade 2.
It is also planning to restart the poverty reduction process and re-open the Provincial Nominee Program for immigrants and review programs that help new arrivals start businesses.