New Brunswick

Maxime Bernier applauds Higgs's call for cuts to equalization

The leader of the upstart People’s Party of Canada says he believes he has found an ally in New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs.

Leader of the People's Party spoke at a luncheon in Saint John on Thursday

Maxime Bernier gave a speech at a business luncheon in Saint John on Thursday. He said he approves of Premier Blaine Higgs's call to reduce equalization payments to the province to force governments to develop natural resources. (Jacques Poitras/CBC)

The leader of the upstart People's Party of Canada says he believes he has found an ally in New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs.

Maxime Bernier told a business luncheon in Saint John that Higgs was right to recently call for a reduction in equalization payments to the province in order to force governments to develop natural resources.

Bernier told about 75 people that the premier "essentially" agrees with him and called it "a significant development" that the leader of a province that receives equalization is willing to see it reduced.

"It's courageous for a politician to say that," the former federal Conservative cabinet minister told reporters later. "We must have a discussion with him about changing the formula.

Higgs says the current system allows Quebec to accept large transfer payments but say no to important national projects like the Energy East pipeline. (CBC)

"He is the first premier of a province who receives money to tell the truth. That was great to hear that."

The federal equalization program transfers funds from so-called "have" provinces to "have-not" provinces to support a roughly equal level of provincial services at roughly equal levels of taxation.

I think his views are, to be perfectly blunt, simplistic, and I don't think there'd be a lot of support certainly around the business community and around Atlantic Canada for those views.- Wayne Long, Saint John-Rothesay MP

New Brunswick and other less well-off provinces have been receiving the funding for decades, something Bernier cites when he calls it "a poverty trap" that gives governments no incentives to encourage private-sector growth.

"I am sure that you, too, in New Brunswick would prefer to live in a more prosperous province rather than getting more money from the rest of the country," he said in his speech.

Appealing to New Brunswickers

Speaking later to reporters, Bernier said he thinks New Brunswickers would support his policies as long as he is able to explain them. He said that's why he was in Saint John.

"I'm appealing to the intelligence of people," he said.

Bernier, a Quebec MP, quit the federal Conservatives last year, complaining that leader Andrew Scheer — who defeated him for the party leadership in 2017 — was not willing to take clearly conservative positions on key issues.

On Thursday, he said Scheer will not touch the equalization issue "because his Quebec MPs would freak out."

Saint John-Rothesay Liberal MP Wayne Long said he didn't think Bernier's message, which also includes abolishing the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency, would resonate in the city or the province.

"I think his views are, to be perfectly blunt, simplistic, and I don't think there'd be a lot of support certainly around the business community and around Atlantic Canada for those views," Long said.

'Big questions'

But Jim Quinn, chair of Saint John's regional chamber of commerce, which hosted the luncheon, said some of Bernier's ideas on reducing environmental hurdles for pipeline approvals "would resonate with a lot of people."

He said Bernier's pledge to eliminate the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency and other federal agencies that hand out business subsidies raises "big questions."

"Those agencies certainly have a focus on helping to expand businesses, so I'm sure there's another part to the discussion that would need to be explored in terms of how businesses and entrepreneurs can have the opportunity to develop their businesses and grow," he said.

Maxime Bernier said he believes he can get New Brunswickers' approval as he's 'appealing to people's intelligence.' (CBC)

Quinn added that while change is never easy, "our country is at a crossroads, our province is at a crossroads, having to look at doing things differently. I think our economic situation more or less dictates that."

Bernier's anti-government, pro-business message seemed well-tailored to a city and business community still lamenting the cancellation of the Energy East pipeline.

Fewer environmental regulations would have allowed the project to go ahead, Bernier told the crowd.

"There have been so, so many bad decisions on the part of the Trudeau government, I don't know where to start."

If the project is ever revived, he said, a People's Party government would use federal powers in the Constitution to force it through over provincial opposition in Quebec.

"Justin Trudeau will not do this," he said. "Andrew Scheer will never propose this either. He is just too afraid of the pushback from his Quebec MPs, and getting bad press in Quebec."

No mention of immigration

During his speech, Bernier didn't raise his controversial proposal to reduce the number of immigrants entering Canada.

He told reporters he planned to discuss it at an evening rally for his party and said his views are not at odds with the many experts who say more immigration is needed to fill labour shortages and grow the population in New Brunswick.

He said under his plan, there would be fewer immigrants overall but more "economic immigrants" bringing needed skills or investment.

Bernier said his party has established riding associations in all federal constituencies and is now recruiting candidates ahead of October's federal election.

He believes he can win support from Conservatives but also from Liberals who support balanced budgets and New Democrats who are against corporate subsidies.

And while he's not familiar with the policies of the provincial Green Party and the People's Alliance, he said, he believes their breakthroughs in the recent provincial election show voters here are willing to support new parties.

"It's very encouraging for us," he said.

About the Author

Jacques Poitras

Provincial Affairs reporter

Jacques Poitras has been CBC's provincial affairs reporter in New Brunswick since 2000. Raised in Moncton, he also produces the CBC political podcast Spin Reduxit.

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