Finance Minister Blaine Higgs says "politics" is the reason New Brunswick is in the dire financial position it faces with a $12-billion debt looming.
Participating on CBC New Brunswick's weekly political panel, Higgs said "politics" is what's preventing him from getting the province's finances under better control.
'We all can look ourselves in the mirror and say that's why we can't make real decisions.' - Blaine Higgs, finance minister
"We all can look ourselves in the mirror and say that's why we can't make real decisions. That's why we can't move forward and drive things home," said Higgs, a first-term politician after a long career with Irving Oil.
Higgs delivered his fourth budget on Tuesday. At one time, it was 2014-15 when the Alward government intended to start delivering balanced budgets. However, Higgs pushed the date for balanced budgets back to 2017-18.
"The single biggest thing that buries our province every four years is the election cycle," said Higgs, noting that campaign promises typically add $200 million to $300 million to the government's bottom line every time there is an election.
"It's historic. We all do it," said Higgs.
"The root cause of why we're where we are … is the only way we feel we can get elected is to invent something new on the trail – to come up with some whiz-bang idea that's going to capture votes," said Higgs. "The public are looking for it, so if you're not going to promise it to me, I'll go with someone else who will."
Liberal Leader Brian Gallant challenges Higgs' assertion.
"It's their political courage they have to have," said Gallant, adding that he doesn't doubt Higgs would have balanced the budget this year if it was solely up to him.
"Somebody stopped him," said "Gallant. "It's not any of us. It's somebody around the caucus table, if not the premier himself."
Higgs pointed out that Liberals and Conservatives alike have made campaign promises that cost the province money in the past. He gave the example of the Liberals promising to cut personal income tax rates and compensate for it by raising the harmonized sale tax under the Graham government, but then failing to follow through with the HST increase. Higgs said those decisions resulted in "serious dollars" being added to the government's books.
New Democratic Party Leader Dominic Cardy also challenges Gallant's ability to control spending. Cardy said the only spending commitment he has heard Gallant make since becoming Liberal leader is for a $1-billion highway project that would run through the constituencies of three-quarters of the Liberal MLAs.
`I find it very hard to listen to any discussion about fiscal responsibility or conservatism from your side when all you're talking about is blowing the deficit completely out of the water.' - Dominic Cardy, NDP leader
"I find it very hard to listen to any discussion about fiscal responsibility or conservatism from your side when all you're talking about is blowing the deficit completely out of the water on things that wouldn't make life better in terms of day-to-day education outcomes, heath outcomes for the people of this province," said Cardy.
People's Alliance Leader Kris Austin agreed fully with Higgs.
"He's bang on in what he is saying," said Austin.
"Not only is it the petty politics that has gotten our province in the mess that it is, but we as a province, as a people, have got to shift the way we think when we vote," said Austin.
Patronage and politics
The 40-minute panel discussion also delved into patronage and the ability of civil servants to do their jobs effectively without being over-ruled because of political considerations.
Higgs said the Conservatives have changed the culture of government within the system.
"I have been so impressed with the people I've met in the system," said Higgs. "Why don't we listen to them more? Why don't we allow them to create . . . the vision for this province?
"Why do we think we can invent it? We're not the experts."
Cardy countered that it is politics that is shutting down what Higgs wants to see.
"You talk about why don't we let the experts make the decisions," said Cardy. "You know the reason as well as I do. It's because there are people around your caucus table that won't let those people do their jobs.
"Those are people who … are afraid of making those choices and standing up for what's right because they know they'll get shot down by the politicians."
Cardy also challenged Higgs on patronage appointments by government, citing the examples of former N.B. Liquor president Daniel Allain and the appointment of former Conservative cabinet minister Margaret-Ann Blaney to head Efficiency New Brunswick.
"We know that those positions with less-famous names are replicated throughout government, hundreds of people being paid very high salaries," said Cardy.
Higgs notes that the Conservatives introduced legislation to stop the traditional political hiring for the president and chief executive officer of NB Liquor.
"The move with the CEO of NB Liquor is a clear example of saying, `This has to stop," said Higgs.
"It changes the culture of entitlement that has existed forever," said Higgs. "I think there are all kinds of opportunities to go from there."