If you have been following New Brunswick politics, you could be forgiven for thinking that the New Brunswick New Democratic Party (NDP) is on the verge of total collapse. They have had four elected leaders in the last 15 years, came in fifth in the popular vote in 2018 and their one leadership candidate has recently failed to pass the vetting process. They have now sent out a message imploring all interested to please sign up to run for leader.
In a province like New Brunswick, not having a strong democratic socialist party as part of the debate hurts everyone. The province that would most benefit from socialist policies seems to be the one with the least prospect of electing any politician able to enact them.
New Brunswick is one of, if not, the poorest province, effectively ruled over by the Irving family that owns so much land that only ruling monarchs and the Pope have more. The Irvings run large industries in many sectors, including publishing every English-language daily newspaper.
Many New Brunswickers have spent time working for them. In fact, my first real job was at an Irving gas station. The current premier, Blaine Higgs, was a long-time Irving employee. Despite the fact that Irving provides jobs through their companies, the median income of New Brunswick is the lowest in the country and the child poverty rate in Saint John is one of the worst in Canada. Liberal and Progressive Conservative governments have been ineffective at challenging their wide-ranging control over the economy.
As reported in the National Observer and the CBC, the Irving group of companies do not pay their fair share of taxes. Their crude oil import terminal pays about half the property tax of the Tim Hortons next door and their refinery pays one-third of the taxes paid by a similarly sized Alberta refinery. The Conservation Council of New Brunswick produced a study that lung cancer rates in Saint John were 40 to 50 per cent higher than in Fredericton and Moncton, likely due to this infrastructure. Taxes and detrimental health effects should not only fall on the working and middle class.
Young people are leaving the province in droves as much of the industry has moved elsewhere. New Brunswick is the fastest shrinking province due to people leaving to find work. Education should be free for New Brunswickers who stay and work in the province.
New Brunswick has the oldest population in the federation. Seniors often languish in hospital beds on waiting lists for the few nursing home beds. Many of their younger family members have already left the province, leaving them isolated. The government should create a public system that would offer nursing homes and home care for seniors.
New Brunswick has historically alternated between the two main Liberal and Conservative parties after Confederation. At their core, their policies of governing have been similar in scope on the economic spectrum, believing that creating call center jobs is the way to economic independence and defending against radical change by pointing out the large debt and deficit. The deficit and debt in New Brunswick are problems but a solution is impossible if the rich companies do not pay fair tax rates. The middle- and working-class families are already shouldering a heavy tax burden, including Saint John’s highest property taxes in the country. If all the youth leave for other provinces after graduation, we will never regain the tax base to pay for anything.
As people get tired of stagnation and the massive inequality, this should be a ripe time for a socialist party to challenge the neoliberal capitalist hegemony that leaves everyone but the top few behind.
However, if anything, the New Democrats seem to have been going backwards. The Green Party, with its message of fighting against the devastating effects of fracking and its focus on transparency, has broken through to win seats in the legislature.
Green Party politics deal with our planetary crisis but party members can confusingly be either on the left or the right of the political spectrum. There are eco-socialist and eco-capitalist factions that mean very different things for labour, public funding and the economy. The Quebec Green Party, for instance, has made it clear that they are the left-wing version to Elizabeth May’s more centrist Greens.
In the absence of a strong workers’ party, the right-wing People’s Alliance have been able to revive the Confederation of Regions into a party that blames legal bilingualism as being responsible for the dire predicament of the working class. This is an effective distraction from the real problem of the extraordinary divide between rich and poor in the province.
The substance of the NB NDP’s platform swings wildly every time a new leader takes the helm. This has caused party members to leave in droves. Allison Brewer, the former leader, joined the Green Party as did a strong candidate in Saint John, Wayne Dryer, who is said to have a poster of Tommy Douglas in his office. Another former leader, Dominic Cardy, is the current Minister of Education and Early Childhood Development in a Progressive Conservative government.
A people’s party deeply rooted in the community should not have to change policies every time a new leader takes over. The provincial problems have largely remained the same, as outlined above.
The provincial New Democrats have been focused on finding the right leader to come and save them from their continued despair and irrelevance. A democratic socialist government can be built in the province that would allow for public housing for our seniors, free education for those who stay in NB, and a fair tax system that takes the squeeze off working New Brunswickers. However, these policies cannot be built from the top down.
The NDP needs to stop its focus on finding a messiah and start organizing in working- class, middle-class and First Nations communities to build a movement for change. Otherwise, NB risks losing a voice with the potential to make a qualitative difference in the lives of regular people. Even if you are not a supporter of the NDP, the voice lost in the legislature is a detriment to us all.
Tom Shannon, a native of Saint John, a former employee of the federal NDP, is currently a lecturer at the Beijing Language and Culture University.