Premier Brian Gallant's Liberal government has delivered a fourth and final speech from the throne with rhetoric aimed squarely at consumers and workers in two controversial policy debates.
The speech, reflecting the government's priorities for the new session of the legislature, says the Liberals agree with workers who fear a recent decision by WorkSafe New Brunswick will lead to lower benefits for injured workers.
"Your government stands with representatives of the labour movement who are protesting a decision to draw down the accident fund to a level that may not be sustainable," said the speech, read by Lt.-Gov. Jocelyne Roy-Vienneau.
Carbon pricing coming
The speech also says the carbon-pricing system the Liberals will unveil in the coming year will be one that "minimizes the impact on consumers."
But, it says, it will require large industry "to reduce emissions or pay its fair share."
Premier Brian Gallant was vague on how those two passages will translate into government legislation. In a news conference, he would not commit to legislation to permanently fix WorkSafe NB before the September 2018 election.
He said the province will lower the small business tax rate again in this session to mitigate the impact of any WorkSafe changes on those employers.
But large industry could end up paying more through a carbon price if they don't lower emissions, Gallant said.
"Big business is important for the Canadian economy and the New Brunswick economy, so we want to find an equilibrium, but there's no doubt we have to work with big business to ensure they pay, or play their role," he said.
The nods to workers and consumers are consistent with recent Liberal party advertisements that try to paint Progressive Conservative Opposition leader Blaine Higgs as too friendly to big business.
Speech touches on WorkSafe premiums
WorkSafe announced a month ago that, faced with complaints from business owners about increasing premiums, it was changing the formula it uses to calculate them.
The Crown corporation's policy was to collect 110 per cent of the money required to cover all claims, more than it needs. But it changed that to 100 per cent, which allowed for a lower-than-expected increase to premiums.
But that also increases the chance the fund will be overdrawn if there's a spike in claims or a downturn in the markets where the money is invested. WorkSafe board chair Dorine Pirie called it "a calculated risk."
In the throne speech, the government says it has "grave concerns about the current state of the system" but would represent WorkSafe's independence and not overrule the recent decision.
Just before Tuesday's speech, several dozen union members protested the recently policy change outside the legislature.
"Workers have given up way too much," said New Brunswick Federation of Labour president Patrick Colford. "For too long, WorkSafe New Brunswick has bowed down to the demands of the employer."
Gallant told reporters that "workers have to be protected from what can happen. There has to be a system there to help them." A task force is now studying how to overhaul the system.
On carbon pricing, Gallant said the government hasn't decided what kind of mechanism it will implement.
It must choose between a carbon tax, in which producers and consumers of fossil fuels pay in some way for the resulting emissions, and a cap-and-trade system in which companies that emit must buy tradeable credits if they want to exceed a legislated cap.
Gallant did not elaborate on how the choice will minimize the impact on consumers, but he was clear that large emitters will be targeted.
"I think you all know who the greenhouse gas emitters are here in New Brunswick," he said. "The list of big emitters are the big companies."
Pot, domestic violence
Among other commitments in the throne speech:
- The government will introduce legislation to regulate the sale of cannabis, which becomes legal next July.
- It says it will launch initiatives on intimate partner violence, improve access to family law, and create more access to reproductive health in all regions of the province.
- The Liberals also promise to continue creating daycare spaces to hit a goal of 30,000 spaces by 2020.
- There will be an expansion of the Seniors Health, Well-Being and Home Safety Review to make it easier for seniors to live independently in their homes for longer.
There was no mention the speech of the recent property assessment fiasco. Auditor-General Kim MacPherson is working on a report on why so many errors plagued the system this year.
Gallant told reporters that despite the lack of a mention in the speech, "we are going to do everything we can to ensure that we fix the property tax situation here in New Brunswick once and for all."