Mr. Speaker, allow me at the outset to commend and thank the Lieutenant-Governor for her outstanding work in New Brunswick. I believe the Lieutenant-Governor truly grasps her role and its significance. New Brunswickers are very grateful. I thank and commend her on her outstanding work, particularly on behalf of early childhood. I think this represents for her an ideal opportunity to give back to New Brunswickers what she has received and to further promote the role of her office.
Mr. Speaker, I wish to thank and commend you on your direction of House proceedings. The task is not always an easy one, but you carry on with professionalism and according to protocol. I know that you put your heart into the proceedings of the House, which are becoming increasingly efficient. Your close attention to detail is also appreciated, as this enables us to carry out our work in the best possible environment. Thank you.
To all employees of the Legislative Assembly, I think that, without your assistance, some people around here in the Legislature would be at some loss as to when and how to do things. You are always there to provide support, irrespective of who we are, where we come from, and whom we represent. You are truly employees of the province of New Brunswick. I think that you, the people at home, do not realize the extent to which these employees provide support for your representatives at the Legislative Assembly, here in Fredericton. My thanks to all of you.
I also want to take this opportunity to acknowledge all my colleagues in the Legislative Assembly, particularly the new members for Campbellton and Caraquet. Honourable members, you will realize that very worthwhile work is being done on behalf of the people. Also, you will find that the Legislative Assembly serves as a vehicle to assist you in meeting the needs of New Brunswickers and speaking on their behalf. This is where it happens. I am pleased to see join you the ranks of government and I am confident that you will continue your fine work on behalf of your constituents and all New Brunswickers.
I also wish to take this opportunity to congratulate my new leader. As you know, the member for ShediacCap-Pelé is a very able parliamentarian. He is also a member who knows how to work on behalf of all people in the province. I am proud of him, and rest assured that my support is unequivocal. Furthermore, we will continue to work together, although we are sorry to have lost our leader, Mr. Thériault.
The other day in the House, both the Premier and members on this side stressed the important role played by Camille Thériault during his years in politics. The amount of energy devoted and the significance of the role played by Camille Thériault in the Legislative Assembly will never be fully recognized.
On behalf of myself and my constituents, I want to congratulate Camille and his family. I wish him the best of luck in his private life. Who knows? He may serve New Brunswickers once again in this House. Best of luck to you and your family, Camille.
I would be remiss if I did not say a few words about my riding of Bathurst. This is my third mandate, as you know, and I thank the people of Bathurst for thrice giving me their trust. As you know, Bathurst is a small riding in the northeastern region of the province. It is also a small city in the heart of the Chaleur region and the largest municipality in northeastern New Brunswick.
I think that Bathurst has an important role to play, between Restigouche and Gloucester, and I urge people at all political levels and business people throughout the greater northeastern region to continue their work to ensure that economic development includes the largest municipality in the region.
Before I proceed further, I must mention that, in Québec last evening, the Remparts were able to appreciate the full caliber of the Acadie-Bathurst Titans. Although I realize that my colleagues from Moncton area have not had an opportunity to participate in this tournament, I must tell you that the Acadie-Bathurst Titans once again demonstrated their courage and energy. I wish to emphasize that the Acadie-Bathurst Titans include not only people from Bathurst but also those from the Acadian Peninsula, the Miramichi, and Restigouche, who come to watch. More than a Bathurst team, it is a regional team. I congratulate the team members and wish them the best of luck in the next round.
On a more serious note, Bathurst witnessed a truly sad event in December. I have not yet had an opportunity to address the House on this matter, but I would like to state today that we lost an individual who was not only a work colleague and also a longtime friend, Paul Ouellette. I take this opportunity to extend my deepest sympathy to his family and the residents of Bathurst.
Paul and I became involved in politics in Grade 12, when he and I chaired the first student council at Mgr-André-LeBlanc School, the first bilingual school in Bathurst. So, ours was a long-standing friendship. I know that Paul had many friends in this House and that you provided his family with all the support they deserve. Judy, Jeff, Kim, and Marlene, you can certainly count on the support of all honourable members of this House, on mine in particular.
Now, with regard to my riding, I thought I would address an issue that involves not only my constituency but also the entire province. Moreover, Bathurst is a key player in this issue.
I am referring to the 2003 Canada Winter Games. These will be held in New Brunswick, and the two cities of Campbellton and Bathurst will be the hosts.
In 1985, the city of Saint John was involved in and hosted the Canada Summer Games. The province of New Brunswick and the government of Canada were proud and enthusiastic partners.
All three levels of government seized this opportunity to build on the strengths of Saint John residents and to showcase the city of Saint John across Canada. As you all know, these games were an outstanding success and left behind a tangible legacy to New Brunswickersthe Canada Games Aquatic Centre. In fact, people from Saint John, New Brunswick, and Canada who come for competitions remain genuinely proud of this centre and use it on a daily basis.
In 1999 Moncton was the proud host of the Sommet de la Francophonie. The province and the government of Canada were active and proud partners, leaving a legacy for Moncton and New Brunswick that will be felt for years to come.
In 2003 New Brunswick, along with Campbellton and Bathurst, will host the Canada Games; however, the feeling of partnership and goodwill between the province and the host municipalities is not quite as evident as it was in 1985 or in 1999. Ever since this government took office, there has been a tug of war. Today, I am going to use a little of my time to set the record straight and to give the people of New Brunswick some information regarding the decision the minister responsible for sports and recreation announced this morning in the paper. It is interesting that I had asked over 30 days ago for some information through the Right to Information Act and I received it this morning, so I thought I would use it. I will read this to you so that it is in the records of the House.
This is a memo that was sent from Jennifer Blais and Suzanne Mason, who are part of the games, to the Premier. I won't name all the people to whom it was sent. It will be on the record that it went to everybody, including the municipalities involved in the games.
Ms. Blais writes:
This is a final follow up to my Feb. 15 e-mailRésumé des sites en suspens'.
Firstly, let me emphasize the appreciation of the Games Society for the strong continuing support provided by the Province for the Games, especially the extra funding for the Athletes Village.
Secondly, I am pleased to learn that there might be support for Sugarloaf Park and Eel River Bar.
Thirdly, I can also confirm the Games Society's appreciation of the $1,000,000 funding by the Province for the facilities between Bathurst and Campbellton. I attended the last meeting of the program committee and we are pleased with the progress.
There are two outstanding issues that need funding from the Province of NB and Federal Government:
In February the federal government had yet not said yes.
Bathurst Sport Centre and
Long-track speed-skating at Sugarloaf Senior High School.
The Bathurst Sport Centre is the #1 priority for the Games Society.
Since my Feb. 15 memo, we have worked closely with the City of Bathurst officials to revise the plans so the facility meets:
a) the Games hosting needs for badminton and rhythmic gymnastics;
b) the post-Games sport facility legacy needs (basically a double gym space with the capacity to provide a home for the city rhythmic gymnastics club and Bathurst Sports Hall of Fame, adult recreational space and regional athletic training centre);
c) the post-Games City Hall;
d) the post-Games Library; and
e) the available funds.
Funding now needed is $750,000 . . .
To emphasize the Bathurst Sport Centre is the #1 priority for the Society:
higher priority than Sugarloaf Park
higher priority than Eel River Bar
higher priority than facilities between Bathurst and Campbellton
higher priority than a permanent long-track speed-skating oval.
The City will finance the capital and operating costs of this project with the $1.25 million which the Games Society would otherwise spend to raise two school roofstwo school gymnasiumsand from the City's existing operating monies.
No new municipal tax increase.
Bathurst has already built the KC Irving Regional Centre, the top facility for the Games, and is still paying off the multi-million dollar . . . debt for it.
If the Bathurst taxpayers were not already paying for the best facility for the Gamesthere would be no request for added funds.
This past commitment of Bathurst, which they are continuing to finance, should NOT prevent the City from securing a new legacy from the Games which meets long-term community civic, library and sport needs.
The City of Bathurst is doing its part.
The Games Society and the 7000 volunteers are doing their part.
We ask that the senior Funding Partners support the Society's #1 Priority!!!
This memo, which I won't read in full, was sent in part by Brian Theede, Chairman of the games, and then resent by the provincial officials to all the partners in the Bathurst-Campbellton 2003 Canada Games.
I don't want to take anything away from other facilities, but it mentioned the Eel River Bar facility.
The Eel River Bar sport centre will host the fencing competition. This competition requires a surface area of 8 500 ft². As the situation now stands, the centre has a $1 million commitment from the province. However, $1.5 million is required to complete the project but is not available. The society had budgeted $100 000 for renovation of a local school, but there is no grant for Eel River Bar to hold the competitions. I will leave it to New Brunswickers to judge you on how New Brunswick is treating the two host cities.
The Premier and the minister responsible for the Canada Winter Games were heard saying that Bathurst and Campbellton had received all the funding, because they also invested money. The Canada Winter Games have invested $6 million: $2 million from Bathurst and Campbellton, $2 million from the province, and $2 million in capital costs from the federal government. The Canada Winter Games require $21 million, and $15 million is available. In addition to the $6 million, Campbellton and Bathurst area residents are asked to raise $7.5 million in funds.
In short, for the record, the city of Bathurst will receive $2 285 000 and has invested $1 million. The city of Campbellton will receive $2 280 000 and has invested $1 million. Quebec will receive $380 000 from the Canada Winter Games. Dalhousie will receive $8 070 000, Charlo will receive $700 000, and Eel River will receive $2 million for its two arenas, for a total of $9 325 000 to be invested in communities between Bathurst and Campbellton, although none of these has invested one cent in the Canada Winter Games.
Secondly, the tripartite agreement provides that, if the cities of Bathurst and Campbellton incur any deficit, theynot the province of New Brunswick or the federal governmentwill be responsible for this deficit.
The figures speak for themselves. Mr. Minister and Mr. Premier, I will hold you accountable not to Bathurst and Campbellton residents but to New Brunswick residents, because it is in New Brunswick, and more specifically in Bathurst and Campbellton, that these games will be held.
Both Bathurst and Campbellton entered into this partnership with the province with the understanding that they were true partners. Along with the province, they agreed to involve municipalities and LSDs from Tide Head to Saint-Sauveur. Everyone embarked on this wonderful journey, recruiting volunteers and sponsors and hiring staff. Then the province started to put spokes in the wheel. It now looks as though free-style skiing will not be held at Sugarloaf and the field house in Bathurst will not be built. The result is that all ski activities for New Brunswick's 2003 Canada Games will be in Quebec, and the roofs of two old gymnasiums that belong to the province of New Brunswick will be raised for two weeks. What a shame. What a legacy for Bernard Lord to leave the children of the Chaleur region. They will remember a young Premier pretending to care for the future of children. As Premier, he didn't when he could have.
This is the most reprehensible and irresponsible decision this government has ever made. The host society has indicated clearly that this is its number one priority. It is willing to invest $1.2 million in the project, and the federal government is willing to invest $375 000, as is the city of Bathurst. This government is not willing to come to the table. The children of Nepisiguit, who have a government member representing them in this Chamber, are being penalized as well, and I am sure that families are asking why. As was pointed out to the Premier yesterday, $60 000 per year would be received from property taxes. In less than seven years, Mr. Premier, you would get back your provincial dollars in taxes.
I hope you come to the games, Mr. Premier. As host, you should be thoroughly ashamed and embarrassed. While you are not of the same political affiliation as I, obviously, or many of the people in the Chaleur region, you represent all the people of New Brunswick. When you took your oath as Premier, you swore that you would serve all the people in their best interests, not for your own political ambition.
Leadership, ladies and gentlemen, is tested when the difficult decisions are being made, not the easy ones. Mr. Premier, to be a politician is easy, but to be a good politician and to be able to transcend political partisanship when you need it for the common good is not always easy. Why should we do this today? Actually, it is very simple. It is the question I always ask myself when I have a difficult decision to make. Sometimes I would like to use my political hat, but at the end of the day, I am going to do it because it is the right thing to do.
On February 28 the Premier gave his state of the province address in Fredericton. As he did so, he borrowed heavily from a former Liberal Premier when he talked about technology, innovation, education, and fiscal prudence. As I reflected on his words, it struck me how decisions made 5 and 10 years ago have been pushing New Brunswick forward ever since. I was thinking about the gutsy partnership with NBTel, which allowed us to move ahead in the fibre optics world of information technology and which provides thousands of jobs today, and the risky undertaking to build a power plant in Belledune. Many of my colleagues in this House on the government side still don't agree with this. It assured generation capacity for northern New Brunswick and also enabled NB Power to increase its export revenues in 1999-2000. I know that is how the Power Corporation has been able to pay down its debt and contribute substantially to the government's bottom lineuntil now, that is. I was thinking about the decisions made by the former government on natural gas and the Moncton-to-Fredericton highway, which provided thousands of new jobs and created our highest employment figures in history.
During that same speech, the Premier talked about lower taxes, and I thought about the $13 million in shadow tolls New Brunswickers are going to be paying for the next 30 years, about the $34-million gift to MRDC, and about the $26-million tax reduction to Enbridge Gas.
This morning as I read this article from the Saint John Times Globe, I thought about the $12-million increase in real property tax, which is going to increase in the next budget. This is really timely. I appreciate my colleague from the government side who met with a group in Saint Andrews. I will read this to you, because I think it is rather interesting.
A large crowd gathered in St. Andrews last night to discuss what they could do about the large, often inconsistent hike in tax assessment.
Their MLA Tony Huntjens listened to their stories and offered them this advice: Don't pay your taxes.
"You've got to make a stand somewhere. Don't send in your tax payments right away," said Mr. Huntjens. As he listened to tale after tale of large jumps in assessments which ranged from 11 per cent, to 80 per cent, to 141 per cent, to 256 per cent, he said the situation was a nightmare.
"If this happened in my community, I'd be screaming bloody murder," said Mr. Huntjens.
He blamed it on bureaucrats in Fredericton who he said didn't know what they were doing. He then defended Finance Minister Norm Betts saying, "I don't think the minister knows what's going on in St. Andrews."
He added that Mr. Betts, who was an economics professor, likes systems that work efficiently.
That prompted one of the gentlemen who were there, Jeff Holmes, to say that it "must break his heart".
There were other comments. From Jay Remer:
"The government has been unprofessional in their reassessment of St. Andrews' properties and the government must be held responsible."
The taxes on his property went up by a whopping 80%, costing him and extra $8,000 this year. Another young family's residential taxes have gone up by $700.
"Why?", I ask the Minister of Finance. When he gave us his budget and when we talked . . . He talked again on the news last night on New Brunswick Forum. He said that his budget was prudent. He was doing it so that it was well planned and so that people would know what he was doing.
This is what the people are asking:
"Why should people not know ahead of time what's going to happen so they can budget?"
While reflecting on the state of the province address and on this government's second budget, I was reminded of the following quote: "God forbid that the Premier and the Minister of Finance would actually use real numbers. This is the government that lives in virtual reality." You might think that those were our words. No, these were words that were uttered by the then Opposition Leader, Bernard Lord, in December of 1998words that apply to his own government today. Don't get me wrong. This does not qualify this Premier as a visionary, but it is significant that he is running his government as he sees government.
This is definitely a government that would not own up to its own deficit, even after being told to by the Auditor General. It was amazing to watch the Minister of Finance, who spent many years lecturing the former government for not heeding the words of the Auditor General, perform accounting contortions to avoid calling the real deficit of $895.7 million by its true name, even when the province's own audited financial statements said as much. In fact, as late as last Tuesday, the Minister of Finance was telling members of the Financial Management Institute here in Fredericton that the deficit for 2000-01 was not $8.1 million but $895.7 million.
What a difference 21 months can make. We have gone from condemning corporate welfare to doling out millions to friends of the government. We have gone from mocking call centres as Mickey Mouse jobs to participating at ribbon-cutting ceremonies. We have gone from revering the Auditor General's Office to ignoring its advice. We have gone from promising compassion to ignoring the recommendations of the child welfare report, Children Come First. We have gone from reassuring government workers to trampling on their rights. Yes, what a difference 21 months can make.
And now we move into the second budget of the Minister of Finance. This second budget does not bring us any closer to understanding what this government's vision is for the province. This budget puts a bit more money into health and into education but does not address the real problem. It has no plan and certainly no vision.
On-line Spanish courses are great, Healthy Minds programs are great, but what is really needed is some substance. A great deal of money is being spent to restructure the Department of Education, from moving school board offices to hiring six new superintendents at a cost of $100 000 each. Making it easier for children to learn means providing teachers with the assistance that will make a difference in the classroom.
Whether it means additional speech pathologists, school psychologists, remedial specialists, or better diagnostic tools with proper resources to carry out the related programs, this government needs to start putting substance in education. This year's increase in the education budget will not even cover the cost of restructuring, let alone any new initiatives to ensure that the first years of a young student's life will provide him or her with a solid foundation. Children who are secure, can read, and have numerous skills coming into Grade 3 will flourish. Those ones who do not will perish on their education road.
This year's budget also falls short of boosting the economy. It continues on the same path this government has chosen since taking power. It is obvious that, when it comes to economic development, this government is long on rhetoric and short on substance. In less than two years, we have lost our fervour for developing our economy. It is not about cutting ribbons, making speeches, or tinkering with development boards. We need a hands-on government, a hands-on Premier, to work with the information technology sector to help developing companies. I continue to urge the Premier to reestablish SECAP, which helped hundreds of small New Brunswick businesses get off the ground. Business needs to see the stability of one of the most successful economic development departments in the country returned.
This government has developed a nasty habittinkering with structure. First, it was the departments, then the school boards, then the regional development boards, and now hospital boards. It is time to change the substance, not the structure. It is time to develop a real plan for education. Our children have the lowest test scores in the country in math, science, and language skills. That problem cannot be addressed by creating new school boards and offering on-line Spanish courses. New Brunswickers deserve a real, workable plan to get our kids learning again, to give teachers the freedom to teach, and to guarantee to qualified students that they will have the opportunity of higher education.
Postsecondary education brings its own set of challenges and opportunities. This government continues to ignore the real problem in postsecondary education. Tuition hikes continue around the province, in some areas as high as 10%. We need to review postsecondary funding and ensure that students are really able to reap the benefits of increased government dollars.
It is also time to develop a real plan for our health care system. Once again, the government has gone from crisis to crisis, blaming the previous government, blaming the federal government, sticking on the Band-Aids, and adding a little money here and there. It tinkered with the structure, brought in the Premier's Health Quality Council to find the magic solution, but it never has dealt with the real problem. Once again, we see that there is no plan. This year's increase of 3.9% barely matches the inflation rate of 3%.
After two short years in power, this government has forgotten the first rule of government: Listen to the people. Patronage appointments to boards, commissions, and agencies are the order of the day. Since October 1, 2000, some 37 more people have been appointed to these agencies, boards, and commissions, despite the fact that this government keeps saying it wants to cut the number of these organizations. It promised an ABC review. It promised in October 1999 that a report would be delivered by May 2000. We are still waiting. What a difference 21 months can make.
Speaking of patronage appointments, there have been seven new communication officers hired since this government took power. Not one competition for these jobs was held, and most did not have the required qualifications as set out in the government's own skills and experience criteria for communication officers. Remember when they said they would reduce by half the number of communication officers working within government? They promised this would save more than $1 million a year. I challenge this government to provide proof that they have, in fact, saved $1 million in this area. All but three of the communication officers who were there when this government took power are still there; however, more have been added. I challenge the government to show documentation that would prove otherwise.
Rural New Brunswick has been virtually ignored. Its unique and special concerns have been set aside time after time. Cuts in programs in Agriculture continue to have an effect on the industry throughout the province. Instead of a more accessible, transparent government, people complain that there is much confusion about the programs, as to whether they are still there and where. This confusion is not limited to members of the public. It exists, as well, among departmental employees. This government's neglect of secondary roads has also affected rural New Brunswick. Many of these roads have fallen into severe disrepair with the current government policy. It appears that this year secondary roads will again be neglected, with no money budgeted in that area.
When this government started, there were noble words that they were committing to be a responsive and accountable government, but much of what they have done in the past 21 months has been done behind the closed doors of Cabinet.
This government, with great fanfare, promised it would halt all politically motivated government advertising, yet time and again, we see ministers' photos in brochures and in advertisements. Also, the blue wave used for the Tory campaign is now prevalent in most government publications.
It said it would establish a 24-hour efficient service standard for responding to inquiries from the public for key designated services. If this exists, they have kept it well hidden also. They also promised they would require all deputy ministers and senior civil servants to spend a designated period of time each year on the front lines. This would be time spent meeting with New Brunswickers, consumers, and customers of departmental services to ensure that government remains responsive and accessible to people. They promised to adopt a total development concept for our natural resources that identifies and puts to use every possible source of value-added transformation to create jobs and protect rural communities that rely on natural resources for their livelihood. We found out on Tuesday what is the total development concept. It is a $30-million Tory development fund under the responsibility of the Premierinteresting.
New Vision New Brunswick, this government's mantra, defined total development as a new concept that would revitalize how we grow our forestry, fisheries, aquaculture, agriculture, mining, and tourism sectors. I look forward to having my colleagues in each of these sectors present their policy frameworks to match this new fund administered by the Premier. Yes, what a difference 21 months can make.
This government likes to talk about its promises. It likes to boast about keeping its promises, but there are many it has not kept. First and foremost on its own list was the promise to be accessible and transparent.
An accessible and transparent government does not bunker itself into a closed room and decide what public sector programs New Brunswickers need or no longer need. An accessible and transparent government would not refuse to meet protestors, simply because it does not agree with them. An accessible and transparent government would ensure that New Brunswickers could go into government buildings and expect to find signs indicating where individual departments are located.
Well, not so at the Centennial Building, the government's main office building. The sign next to the elevator still reflects, 21 months later, the names of the departments as they were when this government came to power. So forget about it if you are looking for Investment and Exports, or Business New Brunswick.
An accessible and transparent government would not introduce a back-to-work bill that included a confidentiality clause prohibiting the public from knowing anything about the negotiating process. An accessible and transparent government does not consider locking the doors of the Legislature in order to keep New Brunswickers out.
And an accessible and transparent government would not send letters to economic and industry organizations saying there was no productive reason to meet with them. Also, an accessible and transparent government would not introduce in New Brunswick a privacy bill that may jeopardize freedom of the press.
Since June 1999, we have seen many new situations develop. One of the strangest yet is an Energy Policy that does not include any long-term plans for NB Power. We are in the midst of a most crucial time for our publicly owned Power Corporation and we have a government that does not have a planat least not one that it deems shareable with the people of New Brunswick.
It is not hard to understand how this government is having a difficult time with this issue. It was, after all, the Finance Minister, in his former life, in 1998, who pleaded with the government of the day to sell off the assets of NB Power as quickly as possible. "Sell the plants. Take the financial loss and move on," were his very words. At that time he also said, "The province should be able to set aside accounting policy to make better public policy." Yes, what a difference 21 months can make. Now that he is part of governmentand some would say that he is the governmentit appears he is not so sure about this issue anymore. It is obvious that this government is dragging its feet on developing a real plan. Once again, it has adopted the wait-and-see approach to an important issue.
Having assured access to a stable and reasonable form of energy is one of the first requirements that many companies have when they are looking to invest in this province. With this issue still unresolved, confidence is not high that this government has the ability to deal effectively with NB Power.
This government is boastful of its new tourism program, Hometown New Brunswick. This program encourages visitors to spend some time in the small municipalities of our province and to experience our culture and our relaxing lifestyle. On the surface this may be a good idea, but remember the eighties in this province. Our roads were so bad that they were the first thing tourists talked about when they returned home. Now, we are encouraging them to visit where our secondary roads have been totally neglected for the past two years. It is evident that in every small town and city in this province, because of the cuts to the unconditional grants and because of the cuts to the government's transportation program, the secondary roads and, in some cases, primary roads within the municipalities are in a worse condition than they have been for years.
This Tory government campaigned on lowering taxes. They continue to boast about their tax cuts, but because of decoupling, New Brunswickers are actually losing on federal tax cuts. This is the way Malcolm Brown, a business consultant and former economics professor at UNB describes it. He must be a good academic and economics professor. We have one in our House now.
Accounting. I'm sorry.
"Because the federal government adjusted its brackets for inflation and New Brunswick did not, provincial taxpayers, in effect, suffered a tax grab." Any slight reductions we are seeing now are merely the reimbursement of a portion of that tax grab.
Last year, our leader, who was then the Finance Critic, predicted, "In just a few short years, this change to the tax system will not be a tax cut but will, in effect, become a tax grab." The government says decoupling is about flexibility, but it is also about money, taxpayers' money; and our Finance Minister has found an ingenious way of preventing New Brunswickers from keeping more of it.
This government took power in June of 1999, when the economy was booming. There were three major projects under way: the Irving refinery expansion, the Fredericton-Moncton highway, and the natural gas pipeline. These projects are almost complete. Forecasts by the Conference Board of Canada and CIBC indicate New Brunswick will experience a notably slow growth. Couple this with the demise of the Softwood Lumber Agreement with the U.S. and the slowdown in markets with the forest industry. New Brunswick has already experienced the closing of 16 mills and the layoff of thousands of forestry workers. This is expected to continue and will have a negative effect on the province's economy. Instead of planning for this projected slowdown last year, this government rode the wave of economic boom as if it would never end.
With respect to the Softwood Lumber Agreement with the U.S., this government has failed completely to play any sort of leadership role and has chosen instead to adopt a combination of "it's not our jurisdiction" and the "wait and see" approach to this serious problem. Although this government campaigned on being a more compassionate, caring, and socially responsible government, this has not been illustrated in its policies. Its actions once again contradict its words.
Currently issues concerning violence toward women, more money for day care facilities, the need for more social workers, and the need to increase payments to foster parents have to be addressed. This year's budget adds 20 new social workers. They will be welcomed, but this will only scratch the surface. The Children Come First report recommends that 143 new protection social workers177 in allare necessary to really address the problem. Again, we have not seen any plan.
The minister responsible for this sector will have an opportunity, in the coming weeks, to respond to the report. I urge him to put forward his government's plan so that we can see the program the government intends to put in place for children. It is high time.
Mr. Minister, to help you in your task, I will simply read to you a portion of a letter you sent to Ms. St-Pierre.
As you know, the First Ministers agreed in September 2000 to in invest over the next five years in early childhood development, from the prenatal period to children six years of age, beginning in April 2001.
I am pleased to announce that, as stated in the recent throne speech, a New Brunswick Early Childhood Agenda will be tabled to outline our government's firm commitment to increased investment in prenatal care, child care, and support measures for families and communities. Your recommendations are timely, because our government believes this funding should assist in supporting early childhood development initiatives aimed at assisting children reach their full potential. Therefore, we will consider various priorities relating to early childhood, and I will put your recommendations to the government.
I will take the minister's word and urge him to inform us over the next few weeks as to how he will table his action plan. The coming years will then demonstrate this government's commitment to early childhood.
I need not remind you of this, Mr. Minister, but, at the same time, you have said that you were fully aware of the demands by day care workers. They need higher salaries and increased funding for programs, resources, training, and infrastructure. Mr. Minister, you will agree with me that these issues must be addressed in the coming weeks. We are all looking forward, as do New Brunswickers, to hearing your plans for early childhood.
This government has demonstrated a complete incompetence in labour negotiations. It started out badly from the beginning, just a week after the Lord government was sworn in. On January 25, 1999, the province announced that even though the union was taking the latest government offer to its membership of hospital workers, the labour board would conduct its own vote. At the time, labour leaders were astonished, saying that the secret ballot vote conducted by the labour board was an indication of this government's willingness to maneuver around the bargaining committee. At that point, the labour board had never conducted one of these votes. We all know where this dispute finally went: back-to-work legislation.
Then, of course, there was the longest public service sector strike ever, the court stenographers strike, which ended when the government finally, after repeated refusals to do so, agreed to binding arbitration. The physicians are not happy. The nurses reluctantly signed an agreement after two votes when they were promised that their working conditions would be improved. Several thousand members of other labour groups within the province are currently at the bargaining table, but now they are faced with back-to-work legislation. It has tainted the bargaining process in this province and will continue to reflect the inability of this government to be part of good-faith negotiating.
Within the body of the draft legislation that this government proposed to deal with the back-to-work legislation was this government's true approach to being open and transparent with New Brunswickers. The confidentiality clause they put forward was nothing less than a blatant attempt to keep all information confidential and behind locked doors. They also attempted to make the Right to Information Act null and void.
I wonder how these groups feel now that they know that while they were negotiating in good faith with this government, the Minister of Finance was sitting on $100 million. It brings up the issues of credibility, transparency, openness, equity, fairness, and just plain ethics. What a difference 21 months can make.
As Finance Critic, my role, as I see it, is to give an overview of the budget of the province. My colleagues and I, in the weeks to come, will question all ministers as they bring forward their budget estimates.
I guess a picture is worth a thousand words, and I would just like to summarize briefly. Maybe I should have started with that and that would have been the end of it, but I couldn't miss a golden opportunity.
On the government's Ordinary Account expenditures, I will very briefly say that we see a change of 2%. The inflation rate is 3%. I will just bring up a point here about Business New Brunswick, the Executive Council, and Investment and Exports. Business New Brunswick has a diminished percentage of 11%almost 12%from year to year, and for Investment and Exports, it is down by over 5% compared to last year. The Executive Council has an increase of 24%. The Legislative Assemblythat's us, peoplehas a 19% increase. For the Office of the Premier, it is 5%. The Regional Development Corporation, which is the Premier's department, has a 47.38% increase. Family and Community Services has an increase of 3.7%, but listen to this, people: We have taken $32 million out of the income security envelope, and we have not increased income assistance rates. This comes out of the poorest of the poor in New Brunswick. It is $32 million they will not get.
I guess this is just a one-pager. It doesn't take an economist or an accountant to read these figures and to know where the priorities of the government are. Just look at this, and you will know. That is your compassionate government, ladies and gentlemen.
There is just one more thing. We were looking very feverishly for where this $100 million might have come from for the slush fund . . .
I'm sorry, stabilization fund.
I am anxious to see that. I will refer you to page 55 of the Main Estimates, under General Government. We see Employee Benefit Plans and that in 2000-01 we had budgeted $69 625 000. The revised figures are $20 560 000 taken out of pension plans. If we turn the page, we see that for 2000-01 we have zero estimates, but we have $100 million. It is called the Fiscal Stabilization Fund. I would like to know how the workers of New Brunswick, particularly the public service employees, will feel when they know not only that the Minister of Finance was sitting on $100 million but also that it looks as though we know where the $100-million stabilization fund comes from: the pensions of the employees of New Brunswick.
This government has created a three-year, $30-million Tory development fund, a $100-million emergency slush fund, created, as we have just seen, by borrowing from the pensions plan. This is a plan, by the way, that took us 12 years to have fully funded. It still has $89 million of federal dollars for the Trans-Canada Highway in the bank somewhere with the Minister of Transportation. It has $100 million of federal dollars for health care somewhere with the Minister of Health. It has $7 million-plus for the Children's Agenda sitting with the Minister of Family and Community Services. It does have federal housing dollars, from what I can see, of probably around $12 million sitting in the bank. This year alone, the government relied on the federal government for 40% of its provincial revenues, in the year 2001-02. If I am correct, you have REDA, which probably has about $27 million still sitting there from last year. Yet the Premier of this province and this Finance Minister are constantly on the federal doorstep with their hats in hand, saying "Gimme, gimme, gimme". More often, when they say "gimme", they don't even say "please", and I don't think I have ever heard them say "thank you".
What is wrong with this picture? you ask. The Finance Minister calls this the smart way of management. He calls this a prudent budget. I call it a government that cannot plan ahead, that has no confidence in its ability to govern, and that has no vision. This is a Harris-Klein style of government in New Brunswick. The Premier likes to call it "a progressive government with conservative ideas". I think that is what he said yesterday. You can forget the "progressive". As we were going out after listening to the budget on Tuesday, I heard someone say, "My gosh, Ralph Klein does have a younger brother."
This government is very fortunate that it inherited an economically strong fiscal structure. It is fortunate that the revenue is mostly due to the price of heating oil and gas and that federal fiscal transfers were up; otherwise, this province would be in worse shape than ever. Listening to the Minister of Finance yesterday reminded me of a quote from Lord Beaverbrook when talking about an individual and that individual's love of power. Beaverbrook said, "He doesn't care in which direction the car is traveling so long as he remains in the driver's seat." This Finance Minister obviously feels he is in control, but from what we heard yesterday, not only can New Brunswickers not be sure in which direction the car is moving but New Brunswickers cannot even be sure that the engine is running. Thank you.