Criticism of the Higgs government’s lack of fiscal management came from two different sources this week: an economist and the largest labour union in the province. They both agree that the government has mismanaged its financial affairs.
Université de Moncton economist Richard Saillant called the spectacle “our province’s festival of financial forecasting errors.” Three months ago, the province forecasted a surplus of $89 million for the year but two weeks ago, the government projected a $487.8 million surplus for the same period.
The latest surplus even came after the province had to pay $200 million owed in back wages to CUPE (Canadian Union of Public Employees) members and other public sector workers, after years of government stonewalling followed by a province-wide strike finally resulted in new contracts.
The Moncton economist also pointed out that the government’s financial projections seem heavily influenced by political concerns. In one memorable incident last year, the province abruptly cancelled a technical briefing on its financial situation on Sept. 2, the week before CUPE planned to hold a series of strike votes. At the time, the government was claiming to be in serious financial deficit and its wage offer to public sector workers was well below the cost of living.
The following month, in October, after leaks were published about the province’s financial health, another briefing was scheduled, and the province was forced to admit that instead, it had posted its largest surplus ever in the previous fiscal year.
On Monday this week, CUPE New Brunswick published its “Plan for all New Brunswickers,” the union’s submission to the government’s pre-budget consultation. The CUPE plan is a broad vision for an economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic by investing in and expanding public services eroded by consecutive austerity governments.
The CUPE NB plan states that the current provincial budget surplus is “not good news,” rather that it means New Brunswickers “have needlessly suffered during a pandemic – record levels of homelessness, low social assistance rates, long healthcare wait times, poverty-wages, and high energy costs all because of a government that cannot properly budget.”
CUPE’s budget plan includes six objectives: fair wages, childcare for everyone, keep service public (not privatized), making long-term care part of our public healthcare system, affordable energy and affordable housing.
When launching its plan, CUPE NB president Stephen Drost called the budget surplus “a historic opportunity to put forward a vision for a government that works for all New Brunswickers, not just a select few.”
The CUPE document also calls out the “highway robbery” by the “rich and powerful” in the province not paying their fair share of taxes. As reported in the first year of the pandemic, the Higgs government was attempting to squeeze money from unionized front-line public sector workers while billionaire wealth in the province was rising.
Between April and October 2020, the wealth of James Irving, owner of JD Irving, rose 36 per cent, from 6 billion to 8.1 billion, and the wealth of Arthur Irving, owner of Irving Oil, rose 32 per cent, from $3.3 billion to $4.4 billion.
Until the 2021 CUPE strike and subsequent contract agreement, public sector workers in New Brunswick had experienced more than a decade of wage cuts and below-inflation wage mandates and were the lowest paid in Canada. Women, who make up the majority of CUPE members, are disproportionately affected by low wage mandates.
The government will deliver its 2022-2023 provincial budget in the Legislature later this month.
Susan O’Donnell writes for the NB Media Co-op.