We believe that ALL political candidates, special interest groups, and political parties must commit to policies that align with the following principles:
New Brunswick is not in crisis, but if it continues on its current course, it soon will be. Public finances are out of balance. Governments spend money they do not have. There is little tax room left to increase revenues. Accordingly, governments borrow money for current priorities, leaving future generations the responsibility to pay for them. Public debt must be serviced by paying interest and these interest charges assume greater and greater shares of current government spending. The broader problem is one of inter-generational injustice. Future generations are incurring financial obligations for services they did not vote for and may not even enjoy. This is a violation of a constitutional principle – no taxation without representation.
The financing of public services by means of debt might be more tolerable if the services provided produced superior results. But the considerable moneys we spend on key services like health care, education, and infrastructure do not even produce adequate results. Rates of illiteracy in the province are unacceptably high. Waiting lists for medical procedures are among the longest in the country. We have more roads per capita than almost all other provinces but they are in poor condition. For all of governments’ business development and job creation efforts, there is little to no economic growth, a high unemployment rate, and a labour force unable to fill the jobs that are available for it.
One would think that our political parties and leaders would be on to all this. It appears not. Elections in New Brunswick are frustrating exercises in gamesmanship, name-calling, and short-term vote-buying. They never seem to be about the important and difficult questions facing the province. Even when they are in government, political parties do not stop campaigning. Every decision seems to be about securing re-election. A big problem facing the political system is that it is very hard to get governments to make decisions for the long-term well-being of the province and its people. Politicians legitimately wonder if they will be re-elected if they make tough decisions whose benefits only become apparent years down the road. New Brunswick’s fixation on short-term band-aids is propelling us toward a crisis.
The consequences are clear. The quality of public services is in jeopardy; public spending continues to increase; the economy is stagnant; investment and immigration in the province is sluggish; young New Brunswickers leave the province for opportunities elsewhere; and high levels of public indebtedness make the province vulnerable to high interest rates and the lending decisions of others. We are losing the ability to govern ourselves.
The NB Concerned Citizens Coalition was created to help reverse these disturbing trends. New Brunswick is a great province and its people deserve courageous, clear-eyed leadership. Its people can use their influence as voters and constituents to call their leaders to their responsibilities. To that end, the Coalition has developed the following set of principles that can help get New Brunswick on track to sound governance, fiscal responsibility, quality public services, and long-term, sustainable well-being.
Principles for Responsible Public Spending
All public spending shall be judged not just according to short-term benefit but also long-term impact on the province’s welfare.
Many policies may serve short-term interests of government parties and various stakeholder groups but may harm the long-term interests of the province as a whole.
The provincial budget should be balanced during periods of economic (GDP) growth.
When economic times are good, government spending should be limited. Yet the tendency is to continue to borrow and spend in good times and bad. This is unsustainable.
Spending on new initiatives must be preceded by analysis of existing policies.
New spending initiatives must be matched by decreases elsewhere in existing spending. If the government wishes to fund a new $40 million initiative in tourism, for example, it must make cuts in other commitments of the same amount. Government must take opportunity cost seriously.
Annual budget surpluses should be applied to the public debt.
Once again, governments’ default actions are always to spend. Meanwhile, interest payments on public debt increase and leave less fiscal room for program spending. Debt reduction has to be a priority.
Public resources should be re-aligned to reflect population distribution.
The inconvenient truth about New Brunswick is that people, both in the north and south of the province, are moving to larger urban centres. Currently, 85% of the population lives within 50 km of the province’s eight cities. Public services and infrastructure must follow, not ignore, these shifts.
Principles for Responsible Revenue Generation
New Brunswick should commit to regional tax competitiveness.
New Brunswick must take note of tax levels in other Atlantic provinces and avoid becoming uncompetitive. Otherwise, it will lose out on much-needed investment. Governments cannot assume they can tax at whatever levels they want and simply expect people and businesses to pay.
The province should commit to a stable economic development plan.
Between the federal, provincial and local governments well over $200 million is spent every year on economic development. Economic development has been among the most unstable of government structures over the past 20 years. There has been the Department of Investments and Exports and Business New Brunswick, then Business New Brunswick, then Invest New Brunswick, and now Opportunities New Brunswick. The province re-invents the wheel when it should attach it to an engine that moves the vehicle forward.
We need to commit to sustainable natural resource development.
The province contains enormous stores of natural resources and cannot afford not to develop them, not only to provide jobs to New Brunswickers and secure the province’s long-term fiscal health, but also to shift the province away from dependence on others for those same resources. Resource development has to be done right, in keeping with protection of our natural beauty and local communities.
Major economic development initiatives should be preceded by proactive, comprehensive, and manageable consultation processes.
Historically, consultation processes have been perceived as public relations exercises to curry support for projects to which government and private interests were already committed. This cynicism has to be remedied. Groups and communities may not get a veto, but they need to have a serious part in economic development consultation initiatives in which they have a legitimate stake.
The province needs a robust immigration strategy
While the population of the province has grown (marginally) in the last ten years, its labour force has not. New Brunswickers are having smaller families, the ranks of the retired are increasing, and many young people are leaving the province. New Brunswick takes a very small share of annual immigration into Canada. Already, all net new labour force growth in New Brunswick comes from immigration. We need to continue this with a solid long-term plan.
Official bilingualism needs to be affirmed and integrated more effectively into the education system.
The Canadian Constitution declares this province to be officially bilingual. We affirm this, and decry the low rates of personal bilingualism in New Brunswick. The education system must do much better to increase rates of fluent, effective bilingualism. This would not only fulfill a constitutional commitment, but also enable New Brunswick to continue to leverage bilingualism as an economic development asset.
Principles for Enhancing New Brunswickers’ Well-being
Effective education must maximize literacy and prepare New Brunswickers for citizenship, economic success, and a flourishing life.
Canadian and international reports indicate that New Brunswick schools are not performing as well as they should. Among Canadian provinces, the province doing poorly on reading, science, and math. The province suffers a 50% functional illiteracy rate. This is unacceptable. New Brunswick has to get back to the basics of education and citizen competence.
The province must move toward a re-tooled, more effective and sustainable health care system, including flexible care for seniors.
New Brunswick has a well-funded health care system but it deploys resources inefficiently and with poor results. New Brunswick health indicators trail those in almost all other parts of Canada. Seniors’ care has not been well integrated into the overall health system. Years of massive annual funding increases have been followed more recently by more modest annual spending, but the system has not been repositioned to work well with fewer dollars. Demand for money under current conditions is building up. New Brunswick cannot afford not to make important changes to how health care is organized and delivered.
Principles for Good Governance
The province must commit to long term public services plans for the major policy sectors (e.g., health, education, transportation).
New Brunswick’s population characteristics are changing and both departments of government and public policies have to take account of them. Departments must take these and other long-term trends into account as they plan their own resource deployments.
Public policies must be subject to regular review and evaluation based on clear and publicly available criteria.
New Brunswick has a long record of implementing policies and then changing them without evaluating their performance. Governments sometimes do not even wait long enough for a given policy to have an impact before changing it. French immersion policy shifts in the past 15 years are spectacular examples. Good public policy making requires evaluation of the effects of policies based on good evidence.
The province must restore and cultivate the senior civil service as a corps of highly qualified professionals able to offer non-partisan policy leadership and impartial advice to the government of the day.
New Brunswick once had a provincial public service that was the envy of the country. That reputation started to diminish in the 1990s, when the public service’s policy evaluation and research capacity declined. Now, the independence of the higher reaches of the public services is being questioned. Governments now routinely replace senior officials with persons associated with the program of a particular party in power. What has been lost is the ability of experienced, impartial senior officials to provide sound, evidence-based advice to ministers and cabinet. Partisanship runs amok, government looks more like a permanent campaign, and the result is a deterioration in the quality of public policy in the province.
Local government needs reform.
New Brunswick has a vast, uncoordinated tier of local governments that creates duplication and is becoming too expensive to maintain. Most municipalities are too small to deliver services effectively and efficiently. One-third of residents live in local service districts whose mayor is not locally elected but is instead a cabinet minister in Fredericton. New Brunswick needs fewer, but stronger, municipalities. Local services and their costs need to be shared on a regional basis.
Support the work of the Auditor-General of New Brunswick as an independent public spending watchdog
The Auditor General is a non-partisan officer of the Legislative Assembly who monitors the finances of the provincial government and who performs valuable and instructive performance audits of all aspects for government operations. The Office examines whether government spends money on what it says it does, and does so to achieve stated objectives. It also provides essential support to the Public Account Committee of the Legislative Assembly. The New Brunswick Auditor General’s office is under-funded relative to other Canadian jurisdictions. Its work is critical and must be supported.
MLAs should ensure that the long-terms interests of the province guide their work in their parties, caucuses, and constituencies.
Elected officials must understand that they occupy positions of trust. Like other trustees, they must have the best, long-term interests of the province at the top of their job description.
MLAs should be committed to the work and vitality of the standing committees of the Legislative Assembly.
The Legislative Assembly has several standing policy and administrative committees with membership from all parties. These can be effective forums for dealing with public problems in a climate in which partisan divisions are somewhat muted. These standing committees should be seen by MLAs as important forums for all parties to come together and work for the province’s benefit. Excessive partisanship is costing the province its future.