The Gallant government is defending its plan to privatize large parts of the Department of Transportation and Infrastructure and is challenging the PC opposition to say whether it is for or against the idea.
Transportation Minister Roger Melanson faced more than an hour of questions on the initiative during a legislative committee hearing Tuesday.
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The province plans to privatize large parts of the work transportation does, including the chipsealing of roads.
Already, 25 per cent of chipsealing is done by private contractors, with that figure set to increase to 100 per cent over the next two years.
It will also buy heavy equipment such as snowplows in finished form, rather than have departmental employees finish the assembly of the vehicles.
Progressive Conservative MLA Jeff Carr demanded that Melanson explain the cost of doing that work within government.
"You need to prove to New Brunswickers that what you're doing is efficient, and this privatization is all about efficiencies and better services," Carr said. "But you're failing to do that. You're refusing to do that here."
In fact, Melanson did answer some of Carr's requests for specific numbers.
He said one layer of chipseal on one kilometre of road costs taxpayers $18,500.
Earlier this month, the Canadian Union of Public Employees, which represents many departmental employees, said privatizing the work will cost taxpayers more.
CUPE said its members could chipseal a kilometre of road for $875 less than the private sector.
But Melanson said Tuesday his figure of $18,500 per kilometre doesn't include other costs the government absorbs when it does the work itself, such as workers' compensation premiums it must pay for each employee.
And he challenged Carr to say whether the PC party is philosophically in favour of or against privatization.
"I'm not even sure where your party stands," he said. "Should we move forward and look at the private sector to do more work in the province, or should government do more?"
"There's some of your [PC] colleagues who believe government's doing too much, and you're kind of arguing we shouldn't be outsourcing."
Must save money, says PC member
Carr did not take the bait, suggesting taxpayers would support privatization if it saves money and oppose it if it doesn't.
"Nobody said privatization was bad," he said. "Several contractors and private companies in this province are highly skilled and able to do a lot of these jobs. They just want to know: are they getting a good deal or not?"
But Carr also told Melanson he'll be responsible for helping any departmental employees who lose their jobs as a result of the privatization.
"They're going to be looking to you and to me to help them," Carr said, and because of the bleak job outlook in the province, "they're not going to have anywhere to turn."
Melanson says privatizing non-core work at the department will allow it to devote more resources to key areas it will keep within government: winter road maintenance such as plowing, summer maintenance such as patching and repairs, and project oversight.
He pointed out the government already doesn't do asphalting of roads.
Chipsealing is already privatized in the area around Fredericton, and the savings will become greater as that expands across the province because the government will be able to take advantage of bulk pricing.
The province will also outsource the maintenance of its "light fleet," vehicles such as cars and pickup trucks used by various departments.
Heavy equipment maintenance, which requires more skill, will be kept within government.
Melanson also said the province is looking at shared purchasing of snowplows with Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island, again with the goal to "have a bigger bang for our dollars" through bulk pricing.
He said that regional approach has already lead to cost savings in the purchase of school buses.
"You need to take your blinders off," he told Carr.