New Brunswickers go to the polls to elect a new provincial government on September 14th just under two years after the last election delivered a minority government. One of Progressive Conservative incumbent Blaine Higgs or Liberal Party Leader Kevin Vickers will likely become premier, but three smaller parties – the NDP, Greens, and People’s Alliance – could once again hold the balance of power.
Given the state of the economy amidst a global pandemic, a key election focus is rebuilding and getting people to work. The pandemic has exposed the cracks in New Brunswick’s transport infrastructure such as roads, bridges and ferries and the lack of internet and cellphone service in rural areas. These issues are top of mind for many residents, but they do not seem to be a large focus of political parties in the province.
While the platforms make mention of various transportation and infrastructure needs, there are no flagship, large-scale projects, fresh approaches, or major new commitments being made.
The state of infrastructure spending
In their first capital budget in 2018, the Progressive Conservatives cut infrastructure spending by a third compared to what former Liberal Premier, Brian Gallant, had planned prior the 2018 election. In a December 2019 capital budget update, Premier Higgs once again reduced capital spending to $599.2 million, down from the $600.6 million the year prior. Only one specific infrastructure project was announced in December worth $1 million towards upgrading a bridge between Shippagan and Lameque, in the riding of deputy premier Robert Gauvin.
In 2018 Premier Higgs cancelled a number of projects including a Route 11 upgrades, refurbishing Fredericton’s Centennial Building and constructing a new courthouse attached to it, replacement of the New Brunswick Museum in Saint John, and road work in the Perth-Andover. Although the cancellations saved the province capital expenses, it also had to pay $31 million in cancellation costs because of these decisions.
On the campaign trail, Liberal Leader Kevin Vickers said a Liberal government would leverage more money from the federal government to pay for infrastructure projects across the province. He said the infrastructure cutbacks imposed by Higgs’ government could contract the province’s economy. Of the $673 million set aside in the federal Investing in Canada plan for New Brunswick, 78 per cent of those funds remain unallocated.
Platform commitments from the Liberals also include implementing a 10-year agreement with the federal government, signed under the former Liberal Premier in 2018, to protect, renew and expand social and community housing and to continue to develop the five scenic drives and the signature trails program. Vickers also raised concerns over the high-profile projects canceled by Higgs in 2018.
Premier Higgs has said he wants federal funding for infrastructure but needs flexibility on how to spend the money. Higgs has said the federal infrastructure program was designed for larger cities, and New Brunswick’s smaller cities need the money for other things. One major focus is the continued commitment of the province to nuclear energy, Higgs’ has committed to focus on developing small modular nuclear reactor (SMR) technology and reactors along with Ontario and Saskatchewan. Other priorities include his 10-year housing action plan and continuing to advance the Internet Action Plan to boost New Brunswick’s competitiveness in a digital world.
The Green Party, who once again could hold the balance of power, has focused its platform on transit related projects to reduce pollution and connect communities. They have committed to things like developing commuter trains, a year-round ferry service from Campobello Island to the mainland, and investing in tourism infrastructure such as bike trails, hiking trails, and public access to beaches and waterways.
Prior to calling the election, Premier Higgs was under fire for opting out of discussions with the federal government related to COVID-relief funding for transit systems. He has said he was not made aware of details of a federal transit relief program following discussions with the provinces.
Higgs believed the program was directed at large scale projects such as subways – which New Brunswick does not need – when in fact the offer from the federal government was to compensate individual transit systems across Canada for pandemic related revenue losses and enhanced cleaning and other expenses, if host provinces would share half the cost. Opposition parties argued that municipalities across New Brunswick missed out on the federal funding being offered after New Brunswick left the table early.
New Brunswick may serve as an example to other election-ready jurisdictions across Canada because despite the toll the pandemic has had on the economy and the province, recent polls favour Premier Higgs’ PC’s to win a majority mandate. Based on platform commitments and actions to date, this would make New Brunswick something of an outlier in cutting capital spending to balance books when most other provinces are maintaining previous spending commitments or ramping up their infrastructure spending to stimulate the economy.
Patty Toner is a senior consultant and key member of the Transportation, Infrastructure & Communities practice of Global Public Affairs in Ottawa.