For the second year in a row the federal budget barely survived a full news cycle before attention shifted elsewhere. Finance Minister Morneau hit the road to discuss how the budget will give every Canadian “a real and fair chance at success” – hopefully consigning “the middle class and those working hard to join it” to the space in history’s waste bin reserved for grating slogans.
Meanwhile, the national media switched to Trump’s trade tantrums and the Nova Scotia news was all about the weather and the McNeil cabinet’s hostile takeover of the education system. But beyond timid gestures on gender equity and some help for low income workers, there were several items in the federal budget that, with a closer look, provide insight into the Liberal approach to shoring up their East Coast power base.
It may be recalled that the Liberals laid the foundation of that base in New Brunswick in the 2014 provincial election when Justin Trudeau and his erstwhile baby sitter, Dominic LeBlanc, put young Brian Gallant on their backs and carried him to power, defeating the one-term Conservative government. That Liberal victory, coupled with the Trudeau-aided win for the McNeil government in Nova Scotia, kept the Liberals on an Atlantic Canada roll, culminating in their 32-seat sweep in the federal election of 2015.
Nobody expects the Liberals to repeat that performance in 2019, but with provincial Liberal fortunes on the wane in the other three Atlantic provinces, re-election for Gallant’s provincial Liberals takes on at least symbolic importance for the federal party’s prospects in 2019. Thus, the budget contains a trio of promises with direct salience for New Brunswickers, who will be going to the polls in the fall.
First there was a commitment to spend up to $75 million over five years in a cost-shared program to fight the spruce budworm which is spreading east into the Maritimes, first stop the Irving tree plantations in New Brunswick.
Then there’s the promise to fill the “black hole,” a shortfall in EI benefits affecting workers in seasonal industries. A drop in the unemployment rate – likely resulting more from a smaller labour force than a growth in jobs –meant more weeks needed to qualify and fewer weeks to collect benefits. The period between the end of benefits and the beginning of seasonal work is the black hole, a phenomenon in several provinces but particularly prevalent in northern New Brunswick.[i]
There have been sporadic EI demonstrations outside Liberal politicians’ offices and more were planned. But the budget commits to address the problem by spending $10 million right away and $230 million in the next two years “to test new approaches to better assist workers most affected by these circumstances.” What that will mean in policy is unclear, but in political terms it likely means no EI-related demos to mess up Brian Gallant’s re-election campaign.
Spending to battle the budworm and fill in the black hole will benefit other provinces as well. But the third item looks like an outright political gift to New Brunswick – $75 million this year for a “New Brunswick Seniors Pilot Program.” The budget wordsmiths were at their obfuscatory best – the money would support research to “help us better understand the gendered impacts of an aging population, improve the quality of life for our senior citizens and help us lay the groundwork for the dissemination of best practices in supporting healthy aging for all Canadians.”
For services rendered?
New Brunswick’s Council on Aging, already working for some years to develop a strategy on aging, was unimpressed. Noting that much is already known from decades of experience with programs for seniors, the council suggested the windfall should go into services instead of more research. A sensible idea, but doing that would mean Ottawa having to shell out billions for senior care to all provinces. Hence the need for a cover story involving the identification of “best practices” to be shared across the country.
New Brunswick was supposedly selected to host the $75 million pilot project because it has the highest percentage of seniors in its population. That may be true, but just barely. According to the most recent count, in 2017, New Brunswick’s over 65s accounted for 20.1 per cent of that province’s population, just edging out Nova Scotia and Newfoundland and Labrador, each at 19.8 per cent.
With StatsCanada acknowledging an error margin of one per cent on population counts, New Brunswick’s claim to being the oldest is a bit shaky- maybe the honour actually belongs to Newfoundland or Nova Scotia. What’s not in doubt is that under Gallant, New Brunswick is a vassal state to Trudeau’s Ottawa, a status borne out in 2016 when the Province was the first to break with the other provinces and accept the feds’ health deal.
The difference between what the provinces demanded and what they settled for after the common front cracked amounts to about $1 billion this year, growing to $1.4 billion next year and $1.8 billion the next. So the $75 million gift represents only a small percentage of the multi-billion-dollar savings the feds are realizing from their success at the bargaining table, abetted by Gallant’s government. And if the windfall cash helps that government’s re-election next October, the Liberals will consider it, and the other New Brunswick friendly measures in the budget, money well spent.
[i] This does not seem to be a problem in two other high unemployment areas. In rural Newfoundland and Labrador and in Cape Breton the unemployment rate has remained high enough to guarantee maximum benefits.