New Brunswick

Higgs promises to balance budget by 2020, energize private sector

The new Progressive Conservative minority government has delivered its first throne speech, an agenda that aims to be both modest and ambitious at the same time.

Throne speech cites 5 main goals in throne speech as opposed to 'shopping list'

Premier Blaine Higgs's throne speech included promises to recruit more doctors, eliminate billing numbers and give greater roles in health care to nurse practitioners and pharmacists. (James West/Canadian Press)

The new Progressive Conservative minority government has delivered its first throne speech, an agenda that aims to be both modest and ambitious at the same time.

The speech, authored by the new government and delivered by Lt.-Gov. Jocelyne Roy Vienneau, declares that the PCs will not be promising "a shopping list of small commitments" but will aim to deliver on five main goals.

They are: balancing the budget; "energizing" the private sector to improve the economy; making health care better and more accessible; creating a "world-class" education system, and helping New Brunswickers join the middle class.

"Too often, we have accepted that failure is inevitable," the speech says. "That ends now. … The best way to restore hope in government is to get results from government."

The speech includes a goal of a balanced budget by March 2020 "or sooner," following a pre-budget consultation among all political parties starting early next year.

It also says the Higgs government will stop "throwing out programs only because another party introduced them," promising to work within the existing 10-year education plan brought in by the previous Liberal government.

People's Alliance support likely

Those are two of many nods to the political reality that no party won a majority in September's election, and the Tories will have to win the support of at least one other party to pass any of its agenda.

The speech ends with a promise that the Higgs cabinet "will share its power, and [MLAs] will share in the responsibility for evidence-driven debate and policy discussions that offer alternatives and compromises."

The throne speech itself will be put to a vote, likely Friday, Nov. 30, which will determine whether the PC government has the confidence of the legislature.

The three People's Alliance MLAs have already said they will vote to keep the Tories in power for 18 months, so the confidence vote appears to be a foregone conclusion.

"I don't see us diverting from that," Alliance leader Kris Austin said after he heard the speech.

Support possible from Greens, Liberals

Liberal leader Brian Gallant said there were good elements to the speech and his caucus will have to discuss how to vote next week. (Jacques Poitras/CBC)

Higgs told reporters that he hopes the broad approach in the speech would win the support of other parties.

"What would be in that throne speech that someone couldn't support?" he said. "That was the purpose of it: not to make it controversial, not to make it a shopping list, but to make it more of a philosophical statement on five themes."

Green Leader David Coon said there was enough "common ground" in the PC speech that he could end up voting for it.

"It's a possibility," he said.

Liberal Brian Gallant said there were good elements to the speech but he was concerned the PCs would abandon his government's initiatives on free tuition, child care and climate change.

The speech promised a review of post-secondary support programs and did not mention child care. It also said the PCs would form an-all party committee to develop a strategy on emissions, something Gallant pointed out his government had already done.

He said his caucus will have to discuss how to vote next week.

Major commitments

Lt.-Gov. Jocelyne Roy Vienneau arrives at the New Brunswick Legislature to deliver the throne speech. (Michel Corriveau/Radio-Canada)

Among the major commitments in the speech:

  • Action to recruit more doctors and reduce wait times, including by eliminating billing numbers, looking at new ways to pay physicians and giving nurse practitioners and pharmacists greater roles.

  • A six-month review of the contract signed by the Liberals that saw Medavie take over management of the extramural care program.

  • Passage of  a "Classroom Freedom Act" that will give principals, parents and teachers the power to make undefined "choices" that reflect the needs of children and communities.

  • Another attempt to improve the number of school graduates who are bilingual.

  • A review of corporate subsidies to establish whether equivalent amounts of tax cuts or tax credits would create more jobs.

  • A shift of more decision-making power to local governments.

  • A "restart" of the poverty-reduction process launched by the Graham Liberals in 2009.

  • A push for more development of natural resources that respects local and Indigenous communities "who choose to pursue resource-based jobs and investment," though shale gas is not mentioned.

  • The appointment of a new legislative watchdog for science and climate change.

  • An alternative to the federal carbon tax by "building our coastal and green economies" and finding another way to meet emissions targets.

  • A timeline for reducing WorkSafeNB premiums and eliminating both the small business tax and the so-called "double property tax" on secondary properties.

  • A new online tool that allows New Brunswickers to measure the pace of change.

Assuaging francophone fears

Higgs is at left as the lieutenant-governor reads the throne speech setting out five main goals of the new Progressive Conservative government. (CBC)

The speech also noted concerns from francophones that the de facto PC partnership with the People's Alliance could threaten their language rights.

"Too often voices of division and nationalism urge us to reject common purpose and retreat into distrust," it said.

"We have a choice. We have a chance to turn our small corner of the world into a shining example for the world. The people chose a legislature that pushes us to accept the discomfort of diverse opinions and the opportunity of creative compromise."

Higgs invited Alliance leader Kris Austin to Monday's announcement on ambulances but said Tuesday he would try to co-operate in the same way with other parties.

"Yesterday on the paramedics issue, it was a big issue for the Alliance," Higgs said. "That was a focus for them in the campaign, so we said we'd pick that one with them. We'll work on the forestry plan and others with the Greens. The carbon plan, we'll get them involved in that."

Shale gas absent

Protesters face a line of police officers in Rexton, N.B. as police began enforcing an injunction to end an ongoing demonstration against shale gas exploration in eastern New Brunswick on Thursday, Oct.17, 2013. Police say at least five RCMP vehicles were destroyed after they were set ablaze and at least one shot was fired by someone other than a police officer at the site of the protest in Rexton. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

Austin told reporters his party had suggested that the speech not explicitly mention shale gas development, on which the Alliance has not yet staked out a position.

"At this stage of the game in a minority situation, we don't want to be tackling issues that are highly controversial," he said.

Higgs has said he wants to allow shale gas development in areas where there is local support.

Gallant said Tuesday that should be put to a vote in the legislature.


Jacques Poitras

Provincial Affairs reporter

Jacques Poitras has been CBC's provincial affairs reporter in New Brunswick since 2000. He grew up in Moncton and covered Parliament in Ottawa for the New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal. He has reported on every New Brunswick election since 1995 and won awards from the Radio Television Digital News Association, the National Newspaper Awards and Amnesty International. He is also the author of five non-fiction books about New Brunswick politics and history.