N.B. Liberals clash with government over lack of stimulus spending

Coronavirus outbreak: Debate underway over how N.B. should help businesses
WATCH ABOVE: Many businesses have been struggling due to COVID-19 pandemic, and now there is a debate over how the province should help businesses recover from the pandemic. Silas Brown reports.

New Brunswick’s response to the novel coronavirus pandemic has mostly taken place behind closed doors through meetings of the all-party cabinet committee on COVID-19, but this week the debate was brought to the floor of the legislature.

The brief return of New Brunswick’s house of government laid bare the differing opinions on the role government should play in helping businesses recover from the impact of the pandemic.

From the Opposition benches, the Liberals spent virtually all of their allotted time in question period asking the government when more aid will come from the provincial government.

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“Small and medium sized businesses are hurting now. They’re having a cash flow issue, working capital issue,” Dieppe MLA Roger Melanson said on Tuesday.

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“When is this minister and this government going to come up with a real plan for investing in this economy so we can stimulate the economy and get back to a normal healthy economy like we all deserve?”

The retort from the government bench through the week was that the recovery effort is centred around allowing businesses to open and begin producing revenue, not additional spending coming from provincial coffers.

“Mr Speaker, the biggest opportunity of all is actually getting people back up and working and actually doing it faster and quicker than most,” Premier Blaine Higgs said Tuesday.

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It’s a fundamental political divide that is not new in New Brunswick: the Liberals want to see stimulus dollars going out the door and the Progressive Conservatives want to create an environment where the private sector can rebound on its own.

But according to one Fredericton restaurant owner, it’s going to take a touch of both approaches to save businesses moving forward.

Mike Babineau says being able to reopen is critical for businesses that spent almost two months closed. He says the more the government does to protect the borders and allow life to return to something more closely resembling normal, the better businesses will do.

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READ MORE: New Brunswick legislature adjourns as at least 3 MLAs return home after new coronavirus cases

Financial help would still be appreciated, however.

“We need more help, I mean, there really needs to be some financial support from the government, and loans just aren’t it,” Babineau said.

“Loans are great for the people who have the cash to pay them back, but really it’s just pushing the closure a little bit further down the road.”

For restaurants and other businesses in the hospitality sector, busy summers are necessary to make up for the chill in business that comes with the winter. This summer most will lose revenue as they see less tourists and have to cut capacity to abide by social distancing rules.

For Babineau, just being open is fine in the short-term, even with the extra staffing and cleaning costs he’s incurring, but as the fall comes, some sort of help could be needed.

“I like to think very positively in it that we’re going to come through this OK, at least this wave, at least this summer. But I am worried about the fall.”

READ MORE: Coronavirus: 1 new case, Campbellton region transitioning back to Orange level

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When it comes to direct aid the province has mostly deferred to Ottawa. But the province has made $50 million in loans for small, medium and large businesses, waived late penalties on property tax payments as well as interest and principal payments on some existing loans.

According to the official Opposition, that’s not enough.

“New Brunswick has done the least of any province in Canada as far as investing to help small businesses survive,” said Liberal Leader Kevin Vickers, referring to a report from the Bank of Nova Scotia.

Vickers nodded to former prime minister Stephen Harper and finance minister Jim Flaherty, who spent billions in the wake of the 2008 recession to try and stimulate the economy.

But the idea of deficit spending is not so popular with Premier Higgs, who has preached fiscal prudence in the face of a provincial deficit that is now forecast at almost $300 million.

“But I think that we always lose sight, and that’s always been an issue that we’ve had back and forth between the members opposite and ourselves,” Higgs said in question period earlier this week.

“It’s about how we get people up and running in a sustainable manner and how do we help those that need help, not how do we spend as much money as possible and whether it gets results or not is irrelevant.”

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