While about 200 demonstrators voiced their opposition to shale gas development outside the New Brunswick legislature on Tuesday, the Alward government vowed to press on with capitalizing on the province's natural resources in tough economic times.
In its final throne speech before a provincial election that is set for Sept. 22, 2014, the Alward government pointed to improving the province's economy as the lead item on its agenda.
"There is no hiding it — these are still challenging economic times," said Lt.-Gov. Graydon Nicholas in delivering the Alward government's fourth throne speech since it was first elected in 2010.
The government incurred a $508 million deficit for the last fiscal year, about $97 million higher than it projected, and the net debt currently stands at more than $10 billion.
"New Brunswick is at a crossroads," Nicholas said.
The government lauded the proposed TransCanada pipeline from Alberta to Saint John's Irving Oil refinery as a "once-in-a-generation opportunity that will help retain and return our workers at home."
''Economic benefits that could be derived from our natural resources are what will allow government to help fund and improve education, health care and many other services in the years ahead.' - Lt.-Gov. Graydon Nicholas in Speech from the Throne'
And it pointed to natural resources ranging from shale gas, to lumber, and seafood as the key to economic improvement in a province with stubbornly high unemployment that persists above the 10 per cent level.
"Economic benefits that could be derived from our natural resources are what will allow government to help fund and improve education, health care and many other services in the years ahead," said Nicholas.
"The true problem is the question of revenue," Premier David Alward told reporters.
In addition to committing to continue with the responsible exploration and development of shale gas, the government announced it will launch an expression of interest for potash to promote other potential sites for exploration and mining of the resource elsewhere in the province.
Atlantic Potash Corp. signed a two-year agreement with the Department of Natural Resources in December 2011 to explore the Millstream potash deposit and other development opportunities in New Brunswick.
The company has said a mine could create 16,700 direct and indirect jobs during construction and 900 direct and indirect jobs once the mine is operating.
Meanwhile, PotashCorp New Brunswick has a new $1.67-billion mine near Sussex, which will more than double production from the existing mine once it is fully operational by 2015.
Potash is a key ingredient in fertilizer.
Status quo pension 'not an option'
Another contentious issue for the Alward government has been reforming the pension plan for the public service by moving to a shared-risk model.
Civil servants who have already retired have been particularly upset and said they would fight any change in benefits in court.
Earlier this week, Finance Minister Blaine Higgs said the government is softening its stance on pension reforms for retirees. He said a letter being sent to retirees on Monday promises cost of living increases will continue and benefits will never be lower than they currently are.
However, Alward's government signalled that it will press ahead with pension changes for other civil servants, introducing legislation to change the pension system in the coming session.
The pension plan is currently facing a $1-billion deficit, which is expected to grow, the speech states. "The status quo is not an option."
"The legislation will make public service pensions more affordable, fair, sustainable and secure for all public service retirees going forward."
Prescription drug plan next year
By next summer, the government also plans to move forward with a new prescription drug plan to help New Brunswickers afford the drugs they need and prevent people from experiencing financial hardship because of prescription drug costs.
An estimated 200,000 people in the province do not have drug insurance.
"This new plan will contribute to the sustainability of New Brunswick’s health care system by providing access to the drugs New Brunswickers need to manage their health," the speech states.
"Individuals who can effectively manage their chronic diseases through affordable prescription drug coverage require fewer hospitalizations and experience better quality of life."
Some business owners have already expressed concerns about the plan, which would see premiums split three ways — between the provincial government, employees and employers.
The Canadian Federation of Independent Business has said many small business owners are against a mandatory drug plan because payroll taxes impede business growth.
Medicare billings to be made public
One new initiative stands to put the government at odds with the New Brunswick Medical Society, as the government intends to publicly report on remuneration paid to all medical practitioners, including fee-for-service payments to physicians through medicare.
The throne speech says that's in response to the auditor general's recommendations and to "demonstrate proper accountability for more than $500-million in annual health care spending."
In December 2012, Auditor General Kim MacPherson found some New Brunswick doctors are overbilling medicare and not facing any penalties. In some cases, doctors double billed, charging both medicare and the province's WorkSafeNB for the same service, the province's chief financial watchdog found.
This was the Alward government's final throne speech before the fixed provincial election date of Sept. 22, 2014.
"We are continuing the course that we've begun" from a fiscal standpoint, said Alward.
With that election looming, the Conservatives will now require the auditor general to begin reporting on the province's financial status 60 days in advance of each fixed election date.
The government says it will also take measures to ensure the costs of election promises are more clear to New Brunswickers.
"This includes providing tools to voters to enable them to better understand the economic and fiscal outlook for the province leading up to an election," said Nicholas.