Analysis | Pre-budget hearings offer little different from 4 years ago

(As published in English at CBC.ca, January 13, 2016)

Only the government has changed at the public consultation hearings

By Jacques Poitras, CBC News Posted: Jan 13, 2016 6:30 AM AT

14 01 2016 01
Liberal cabinet minister Victor Boudreau is running the series of 10 meetings across the province. (CBC)

It's a familiar dance, and again this week, the same well-choreographed moves are being made in meeting rooms across New Brunswick.

All that has changed are those leading the dance.

This time around, it's Liberal cabinet minister Victor Boudreau speaking before crowds of people, running through a PowerPoint presentation on New Brunswick's chronic deficit problem and pleading for suggestions on what the government should do to fix it.

Four years ago it was then-finance minister Blaine Higgs going through almost the same motions.

Now, as then, opponents of government cutbacks, particularly the Canadian Union of Public Employees, show up en masse.

"If you start messing with public-service pensions and sick time, you're going to have a fight on your hands," one school bus driver told Higgs at a 2012 session.

14 01 2016 02Higgs heard from some union officials at so many meetings that he began addressing some by their first names.

And now, as then, no clear picture emerges from the sessions on what exactly the government should do.

"We couldn't really agree," one man said at the microphone Monday night at the kick-off session in Bouctouche.

"We had the same problem as that table," said the next participant at the microphone.

"We have no consensus."

Boudreau, the minister responsible for the strategic program review process, acknowledged in an interview that "I don't think we'll get a clear consensus."

But he still hopes that the meetings will make clear which options have more public support than others.

$600M needed

The Liberals say they want New Brunswickers to choose from among $1 billion in choices that will allow them to tally up $600 million in new tax revenue and spending cuts.

They include cutting teacher positions to match the declining student population, closing some small hospitals, raising the Harmonized Sales Tax and imposing highway tolls.

Though they initially said they wouldn't convene public consultations because they did that earlier in the process, the Liberals are now holding them, with strikingly similar scenes to what happened under the PCs: plenty of ideas about what not to cut, but precious few about what can be slashed.

14 01 2016 03One man in Bouctouche, Onide Maillet of Ste-Anne-de-Kent, said he was there to tell the Liberals not to cut his small local hospital.

"Health is number one," he told Radio-Canada.

"They may cut other things, but you don't cut health. I'm here to see that they don't touch one number at the hospital."

There are variations. For most of the time the PC government was in office, Higgs sat at the front of the room before large crowds, while individual people went to microphones and, for the most part, urged him not to cut particular programs.

Under the Liberals, the current sessions are using a "world cafe" format, with tables of eight participants each discussing the options and then reporting to the larger group.

That makes it harder for CUPE to dominate the discussions, as they often did under the PCs.

Union members protest meetings

Monday night in Bouctouche, dozens of CUPE members showed up with large placards carrying anti-cuts messages, then filed out, declaring they were boycotting the sessions because they're meaningless.

"Even if there are consultations, they're not listened to," Marcos Sabib, a CUPE rep, said Monday night.

"We think a lot of decisions have already been made and the process is a farce."

The usefulness of the meetings is another recurring debate. The last session takes place Jan. 21, just 12 days before the Liberal budget is released.

Given the time it takes to write, translate and print the budget documents, many critics are questioning how the Feb. 2 budget can really be influenced by input still being gathered less than two weeks before the release.

14 01 2016 04Oddly enough, those two old budget-consultation nemeses — Higgs and CUPE — agree that the sessions are just for show, but from different perspectives.

CUPE says the Liberals clearly favour deep cuts to public services, and that they should instead raise taxes on corporations and high earners.

Higgs is also convinced the Liberals have made up their minds, but on the opposite scenario: he says they're talking about closing hospitals to scare people into accepting an inevitable increase to the Harmonized Sales Tax.

Not everything on table

There's a nuance to Higgs' position: he says the Liberals haven't really presented New Brunswickers with a full range of options.

He says the PC government's last budget year, 2014-15, would have had a deficit of only $159 million if not for a large, one-time pension payment to cover the shift to the shared-risk system for New Brunswick teachers.

That shows PC measures had the deficit moving in the right direction, Higgs says, without brutal cuts.

It's planned Liberal spending on infrastructure that is driving the deficit projection back up, Higgs says, yet that money isn't being offered up as a potential cut in the program review process.

"Let's get a list of all these priority projects and put that in the Choices document," Higgs said in December, "and let people decide whether it makes sense or not. Would we rather put money in health or social services or education, or build a new highway we don't need?"