Friday, June 18, 2021

Recruit, retain and repair the public sector

The provincial government has a choice to make when it comes to how it will proceed as we emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Will it continue with the status quo of successive governments which has pushed services in the public sector to their breaking point – not to mention the workers who provide those services – or will they set a new course, one in which public sector services are appropriately valued.
The New Brunswick Union (NBU) is urging he province to go in a new direction following three simple words:
Recruit. Retain. Repair.
The NBU and its more than 10,000 members want to see an investment in the public sector to recruit more workers for the numerous vacant positions, retain the ones we have by improving working conditions and pay; and all of this will strengthen and help repair the services New Brunswickers depend on every day.
This will not be easy as it requires a dramatic shift in philosophy from Premier Blaine Higgs and his government. Throughout the pandemic, New Brunswick has spent the least helping its citizens through a global crisis.
A recent CBC report stated the average amount spent per person by provinces during the pandemic, excluding federal funds, was $2,200. New Brunswick spent $600.
The federal government has provided virtually all funds that have helped keep New Brunswickers and businesses afloat. This has left NB in an enviable position in terms of how its economy faired through this ordeal. It’s also of little consolation for those who have lost jobs, been gouged in terms of rent by opportunistic landlords, and watched as government raised minimum wage by a nickel.
During the election campaign, the Premier often talked about how well New Brunswick faired, economically speaking, during the pandemic. However, once elected he changed his tune and has stated there’s no money for public sector employees who have been without contracts for more than a year.
He’s asking for wage freezes and economic increases well below the rate of inflation for bargaining employees. He’s arguing that we all have to do our part to get New Brunswick back on track.
First, this is a tough sell after public sector workers did so much during the pandemic, risking their health and safety, to keep the province operating.
Second, the Premier isn’t asking this of all New Brunswickers, just workers. He’s not asking large corporations to make slightly less profits for the good of everyone or cancelling tax breaks that have been in place for decades but were pitched at the time as a short-term solution.
No, he’s only asking average New Brunswickers to sacrifice.
The Premier could bolster the province’s coffers by increasing royalty rates on timber cut on Crown land. Profits are soaring for lumber companies during the pandemic. According to Statistics Canada, the value of production of treated and untreated lumber in the province dating back to last August is more than $1 billion. That is almost a half billion dollars more than the same time frame one year earlier.
However, unlike other provinces which have royalty rates tied to market prices, New Brunswick refuses to increase the rates despite the economic windfall it would produce.
The reasoning for this from Natural Resources and Energy Development Minister Mike Holland was the province keeps a steady rate and doesn’t drop it when times are tough. This was proven false as the province has dropped the rate on multiple occasions.
Make no mistake, while an increase in the rate would affect the profit margin of the large corporations which cut on Crown land, those companies would still be making hefty profits.
Another example of austerity and belt-tightening only being placed on the average New Brunswicker is when the Premier gave $20 million to ARC Clean Energy. The company is trying to develop small nuclear reactors. Given the province’s spotty history investing in different energy projects from Orimulsion to the more recent Joi Scientific fiasco, you’d think politicians would be wary.
However, the money was handed over to hep the company and the Premier said it will, “unlock significant private-sector investment.”
Giving taxpayer money to a corporation in the middle of a pandemic to help it get more investors doesn’t seem like the type of move a government would make that claims to have no capital to invest in public services.
On one hand the Premier states his leadership has helped us through the pandemic landing the province in an enviable position financially. On the other hand, he says we can’t afford to pay front-line workers more or invest significantly to improve services.
What the Premier has done is make a choice. He’s choosing not to find other sources of revenue while asking those who have made significant sacrifices to make more.
However, if he truly wanted to make investment for the province and its people, it would be the public sector. Statistics Canada numbers show education, health and social services top the list when it comes to jobs created per money invested. In fact, those services more than double the return on investment compared to other sectors such as oil and gas and infrastructure.
The sound investment for the short and long-term is public sector and those who deliver the much-needed services.
The Premier has often said he wants to be someone who does politics differently. So far, it’s been the status quo. The facts are there, the return on investment is clear, let’s hope he can look at things differently for the sake of our province.