New Brunswick union representatives and supporters protested planned cuts to education and health care and moves to privatize at the latest government of New Brunswick public consultation on the upcoming budget at the Fredericton Convention Centre on Jan. 12.
The event was part of a 10-stop tour through the province, which will end on January 21 in Bathurst. The exercise stems from a document released in December, titled Choices to Move New Brunswick Forward.
The choices outlined in the document handed to the public include closing rural hospitals or converting them into community health centres, reducing the number of public school teachers, privatizing custodial services, outsourcing highway maintenance and privatizing public parks.
Patrick Colford, President of the New Brunswick Federation of Labour, doubts the integrity of these events.
“We have these public consultations so to speak, two to three weeks before the budget comes down. It’s a dog and pony show. The last public consultation is a little over a week before the budget. We’re convinced it’s already set in stone,” says Colford.
“This exercise is for the government to get the buy in, for them to say, ‘we met you and gave you the opportunity to say what you wanted to say.’ There’s no opportunity between now and the budget for them to digest what they’re going to hear at these meetings and make changes,” adds Norma Robertson, president of Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) 1252, NB Council of Hospital Unions.
“A year ago, we attended these public consultation sessions. We made a lot of suggestions, provided information. None of that is in the document,” says Robertson.
Instead, Robertson sees more upcoming cuts and privatization. “We’re concerned that they’re going to cut healthcare, education, and privatize services. We already have sustained budget cuts. Rural NB services have been stripped away. We’re in an aging population, and if you have to travel two hours, that’s not acceptable to seniors in this province.”
“A lot of these questions (in the Choices document) are loaded, asking ‘where would you rather cut?’” says Colford.
Colford explains that the nature of the discussion is flawed, based on an austerity model where cutting the public sector and privatizing services is inevitable. “We’ve seen around the world that austerity doesn’t work. Why does the government think it will work here?”
In an interview with the NB Media Co-op earlier this year, Richard Robbins, author of new book Debt as Power explains that austerity benefits the interests of the already wealthy.
“Why is austerity necessary? So the 1% can retain their return on investments. The only reason you want to reduce the debt (through repaying banks) is to keep money scarce so that money can retain its value, which is only a concern for those with a lot of money who fear inflation,” said Robbins
A group of protesters formed a line around the outside of the room after being told they could not enter with their signs.
The event commenced with a video about the Choices document and the consultation process about to unfold, encouraging people to participate. It was followed by a statement by NB Finance Minister Victor Boudreau, where he made current spending priorities of the province clear.
“We are now spending more on servicing the debt than we are spending on post secondary education … we want to fix our finances through this process once and for all,” said Boudreau.
Among the possible choices, Boudreau did include a 1 to 2 per cent increase in corporate income tax. However, this is a significantly lower increase that what many, including Colford and Robertson on behalf of their union members, are asking.
Once Boudreau was done, the consultation process began. People sitting at full tables throughout the room were asked to participate as groups in making choices from the options given. The people standing around the room, against the walls, engaged in a silent protest, refusing to participate in what was seen as a flawed process.
At one point, someone at one of the tables called out for chairs to be brought in to allow people standing an opportunity to sit. A partition wall was eventually opened to allow more space.
Instead of taking up the newly opened space, a chant started: “You say cutback! We say fightback!”
The group walked in a circle on the perimeter of the room, briefly disrupting the event before being ushered to leave.
Just before leaving, CUPE NB Secretary Treasurer Minerva Porelle summarized the message of her union: “We were here to stand up against the wall, to stand up for our public services. Throughout the month, we’ll be taking action at these public consultation meetings.”
Colford finished off with a stern message for the government: “Unions have been the social watchdog. We’re going to watch over the government. And as soon as they step over the line, we’ll push them back.”
Asaf Rashid is a NB Media Co-op news writer and editor.