Reply to the Speech from the Throne December 9, 2014 David Coon, MLA, Fredericton South Leader of the Green Party of NB Contact: Margot Malenfant, Legislative Assistant (506) 478-7781
Mr. Speaker, before I begin my response to the Speech from the Throne, I want to thank the people of Fredericton South for electing me to represent them in this Legislative Assembly. It is an honour and a tremendous responsibility to serve the community of Fredericton South in this House. I want to thank the many young women and men, some who voted for the first time in their lives, who put their faith in me. I also want to acknowledge all of the children and youth, too young to vote, who seemed galvanized by my candidacy and cheered me on during the campaign and celebrated my election. I will be forever thankful for their enthusiasm and I will be respectful of the trust they have put in me to give a voice to their hopes and dreams.
Change we must, for everything around us is in motion. Maintaining a death grip on the way we have always done things will surely rob our children of their futures. Things we could count on in the past – the predictability of our seasons, the conviction that the power will come back on in hours, the assurance that sea level will remain at sea level, the availability of work in the woods when all else dried up, the certainty of economic growth, the faith that great wealth for some will ensure a decent livelihood for many – are gone. As our footing has become uncertain, some have taken advantage of our anxiety and spread fear to benefit themselves. They have been successful, as we have become fearful. We are fearful about the economy, fearful about our debts, even fearful of each other – francophone and Anglophone, First Nation and newcomer – thanks to those who would rather divide our people to serve their interests, rather than unite them to transform New Brunswick and ensure our children have a decent future in our province. As Plato said, “We can easily forgive a child who is afraid of the dark; the real tragedy of life is when men are afraid of the light.”
Mr. Speaker, the hopes and dreams of young people are what I will keep at the forefront of my mind over the next four years. I will seek the views of youth, as much as I seek the views of the adults in my riding, and bring those views to our deliberations on the floor of this Legislative Assembly. Young people are hungry for change, even desperate for change. Youth want to play a role in transforming New Brunswick into a fairer and greener society. Youth want in. One way to let youth in is to lower the voting age to 16. This is something we can make possible as legislators.
Mr. Speaker, a recent Report from the Human Development Council reported that 21% of New Brunswick children lived below the poverty line in 2012, an increase from 19.8% in 1989, despite a 40% increase in New Brunswick’s per capita GDP over that period. Between 1989 and 2012 we saw the construction of not one, but two pipelines across our province, a massive expansion of the Irving Oil Refinery and a 61.5% increase in J.D. Irving’s allowable cut of softwood over the same period. Clearly, a growing economy has not reduced child poverty. In fact, it has increased, with the child poverty rate in Saint John, our most industrialized city, at 30.4%. If we want to reduce child poverty, parents need access to affordable childcare so they can afford to work. Parents need access to reliable public transportation so they can afford travel to work. While the government is committed to increasing the minimum wage, it’s not enough. Parents earning minimum wage should not have to pay the provincial portion of income tax, so they can better cope with their week-to-week expenses. Mr. Speaker, children need access to early childhood education to help equip them with the skills they need to break out of the poverty trap. UNB’s Early Childhood Research Centre has created impressive curriculum for early learning, but those children who need access to early learning the most cannot take advantage of it. It has been estimated that universal access to low-fee childcare in Quebec led to nearly 70,000 more mothers holding jobs than if the program had not existed, representing a 3.8% increase in women’s employment. The resulting increase in tax revenue exceeds the costs of the childcare program. We need to look at ways of ensuring universal access to childcare and early learning. Children need access to meal programs in their schools so they can learn optimally, and they need greater access to our alternative education system operated by our school districts for those who cannot function within the regular system. It is overcharged and the waiting lists are long.
Mr. Speaker, two weeks ago the Child and Youth Advocate released his State of the Child report. It shows that the New Brunswick rate of hospital admissions for children and youth struggling with mental diseases and disorder is 80% higher than the national rate. It is estimated that 22% of youth from Grade Six to Twelve have low mental fitness. There is an urgent need to guarantee rapid access to mental health care for our children and youth. The State of the Child report also indicates that New Brunswick has a rate of children and youths who are victims of family violence that is 37% higher than the national average. It is well established that boys who witness violence in the home are at a higher risk of committing violence against women in adulthood. Sixty-five percent of women seeking shelter in Transition Houses were witnesses to domestic violence as children. There is a pressing need for therapeutic treatment for these children, which is not something Transition House staff are able to provide. According to the State of the Child Report, the rate of persons charged with sexual violations against children in New Brunswick is 63% higher than the national rate, which the Office of the Child and Youth Advocate describes as cause for alarm.
Mr. Speaker, I want to draw special attention to the difficulties faced by youth between the ages of 16 and 18 in finding a safe place to live when escaping violence, sexual abuse, neglect, or reaching the age where they are too old for foster care. The youth residences such as Chrysalis House in Fredericton and the Miramichi Youth House have long waiting lists, leaving youth at tremendous risk by lacking the ability to accommodate youth in emergency situations. Frankly, I was appalled that the Telegraph Journal, in its editorial commenting on findings of the State of the Child Report, chose to limits its focus to child obesity. I was also disappointed to see so little attention given to advancing the rights and well-being of children and youth in the Speech from the Throne, given the findings of the State of the Child Report. Parents will sacrifice much to ensure the health and well-being of their children. A similar priority must permeate our policy and budget priorities. We need to build an infrastructure of midwifery to provide the continuity of care for invents and support for Moms. We must invest in strengthening the infrastructure of childcare and early learning. We must invest in providing preventative mental health care and rapid access to diagnosis and treatment. We must invest in safeguarding women from domestic violence and that means investing in treating children who have been witness to violence in the home to break the chain of violence.
As the Leader of the Third Party in this House, the criticisms I make regarding government policy and priorities are not to condemn, but to highlight our challenges so we can work together as legislators to better serve the common good. My arguments will be based on reason, on evidence, and on principles. Mr. Speaker, you have my word that my critiques will be directed toward ideas, not individual personalities on the other side of this House. Mr. Speaker, we can and must afford to build a just society based on fairness and equality. We can and must afford to build a sustainable society based on living within ecological constraints, reducing our fossil fuel use to safe levels, and living within our financial means. I will support, or work to improve those policies, budget commitments and legislation brought forward by government that are consistent with these goals.
However, I will stand in opposition to initiatives that take our Province in the opposite direction and I will propose alternatives. Mr. Speaker, the Speech from the Throne acknowledges that our traditional approach to economic development has been dictated by politics and parochial interests. Like many New Brunswickers, I concur. And I agree that we need to diversify our economy, that we must build resilience into our economy, and – that our plans need to be designed for the next generation, not the next election (a favourite saying of the first full-time leader of the Green Party – Jack MacDougall). Like many New Brunswickers, I add that we have also allowed the private interests of powerful corporations to dictate our approach to economic development, giving the advantage to the few over the many, thus perpetuating our traditional approach to economic development. Nowhere is this clearer than in the case of the contract the past government signed with J.D Irving Ltd. I therefore welcome the commitment to re-examine the resulting forestry plan to ensure that it is sustainable and fair.
However, I reject the caveat that the new government will only ensure it is as sustainable and fair as possible given the constraints imposed by the contract the Tories signed with J.D Irving Ltd. The problem is the terms of the contract make it impossible to have a forestry plan that is sustainable or fair. The consequences of the contract are unfair and unsustainable. Its very existence runs contrary to our Peace and Friendship treaties with First Nations communities, which legally define our relationship with them. Just to remind the House, Mr. Speaker, I will quote from the memorandum of agreement signed with J.D. Irving Ltd. on February 7, 2014. “. . . the intent of this agreement is to ensure the ongoing global competitiveness and sustainability of Irving’s forestry operations in the Province of New Brunswick …” ; that wood supply for spruce, fir and jack pine is to be increased by 25% and guaranteed for the next 25 years. The intent of the contract with J.D. Irving Ltd. is to tie the hands of government concerning the allocation of wood from Crown lands for a generation. It is unsustainable, unfair and unjust. The constraints it imposes on this Legislature will remain only if we, as legislators, tolerate them. It is the responsibility of this House to terminate it. I will be looking for the new government to bring forward a bill to accomplish this.
Mr. Speaker, we repeatedly hear how export-dependent our economy is. Such heavy reliance on exports means our economy is brittle, not resilient – a goal set out in the Speech from the Throne. Between 65% and 70% of those exports are from the Irving Oil Refinery, which really is re-exporting crude oil purchased from outside the province that is has refined into gasoline, diesel, aviation fuel and other petroleum products. Mr. Speaker, TransCanada Pipelines proposes to build a pipeline from Alberta to the Port of Saint John to gain access to export markets for oil companies looking to expand their mining of the tar sands. To further deepen our economy’s dependence on the export of fossil fuels brings up a red flag concerning the Speech from the Throne’s commitments to build a more diversified and resilient economy, and their commitment to never put our health, our environment or the sustainability of our resources at risk. The overproduction and overconsumption of fossil fuels is causing a global climate crisis and the acidification of our ocean waters. To deepen our economy’s dependence on fossil fuel production and consumption with the Energy East pipeline is simply throwing gasoline onto the fire of the crises in our climate and our ocean waters. The International Energy Agency has said that we must not build new fossil fuel infrastructure that will lock us into the expanded production of fossil fuels for the next 50 years as they have concluded that two thirds of all proven fossil fuels reserves must stay in the ground if we are serious about avoiding dangerous climate change.
This week in Lima, Peru, the world is gathering to draft an agreement to avoid dangerous climate change, which is to be signed in Paris a year from now. The Throne Speech failed to mention the role New Brunswick will play in tackling what is, overwhelmingly, the challenge our generation must come to grips with now. The Pembina Institute estimates that the upstream emissions from the expansions in tar sands mining needed to fill the Energy East pipeline would amount to 32 million tonnes per year, twice what our entire province emits annually. It would be like building six big new coal-fired power plants. And that’s not even calculating the massive release of emissions that would result from burning the exported bitumen. Mr. Speaker, I was visited by the Vice-President of Marketing for TransCanada Pipelines last week and the economic analysis of the Energy East Pipeline he provided revealed that the pipeline would create only 78 permanent direct jobs. Seventy-eight jobs, Mr. Speaker?
Clearly, if we are to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels we need to build a new, greener economy that grows away from consuming large quantities of oil, coal and natural gas. A key part of the solution is to lessen our demand for energy through energy efficiency and conservation – a mandate of Efficiency New Brunswick, the Crown Corporation created to develop the energy efficiency sector to help home and business owners to cut their heating costs and grow the energy efficiency service sector. Hundreds of jobs have been created by the incentives offered by Efficiency New Brunswick to ignite private investment in energy efficiency to the tune of more than $300 million dollars. A recent study by Canmac Economics, a consulting firm based in Nova Scotia, found that investment in energy efficiency in Nova Scotia is building a local industry that will grow at more than five times the rate of the provincial economy over the next five years and it has already created 1,200 full-time jobs.
This sector of the economy is a shining example of sustainable economic development. It creates far more employment per dollar than any other sector of the energy economy, it ignites new business start-ups, creates new products and technologies, cuts costs for home and business owners, and shrinks our environmental impact. I want to help the government, Mr. Speaker, ensure that the full economic potential of energy efficiency is explored to create jobs, cuts costs and reduce our carbon footprint. This means not only restoring the home energy efficiency retrofit program, but the retrofit program for business and industry and the new home and commercial building programs. And not just for homes and businesses that use electricity, but for those who consume oil, propane, natural gas or wood. There are thousands of jobs that can be rapidly created in the energy efficiency sector in New Brunswick, but it requires that we have an effective delivery mechanism and that we set targets.
I am happy to work with the government to look at how Efficiency New Brunswick can be improved to ensure it can exploit our efficiency resources to their fullest, or to examine an alternative delivery model such as the one used in Nova Scotia with Efficiency Nova Scotia. NB Power is not the appropriate means to deliver energy efficiency on the scale I am speaking about. First, only 30% of the energy used in New Brunswick is electricity. Second, it’s mandate is not to grow the energy efficiency service sector or deliver energy retrofit programs. And, thirdly, it faces a conflict of interest when efficiency significantly diminishes its load, reducing the demand for the electricity it produces.
Another way to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels while fuelling our economy is to reduce our need for imports. The growing percentage of food produced and processed locally remains a drop in the bucket compared to the potential. Still, the potential is clear, with young families establishing new farms, entrepreneurs creating processing operations, craft breweries, new grocery stores and retail outlets. Imagine the local jobs that would be created with clear targets to replace a percentage of the food we import with local food. The same approach can be taken for renewable energy production. If we set clear targets, there is no reason that we couldn’t become a leader in renewable energy development from greening our grid with solar, tidal, wind, biogas and biomass to manufacturing heat pumps, solar furnaces, and wood pellet boilers. New Brunswick, Sackville in particular, once had the national reputation as the source of the very best wood stoves in the country. There is no reason we couldn’t develop that reputation for heating technologies run by the new sources of renewable energy. Already, the research and development is going on in the engineering departments of UNB on solar power technologies, renewable liquid fuels, and the energy control systems needed to go with them. We have had a moratorium on new ideas, a moratorium on ingenuity for too long in government. To turn this around, we need to say yes to the new ideas and real innovation that we desperately need in an ear of rapid climate change.
Our government must be courageous enough to seek out the ideas of our youth, of our public service, of our university scholars, and our entrepreneurs. We need to take the same approach to infrastructure. The Speech from the Throne speaks to investments in infrastructure and hints and expanding the definition of infrastructure, which I support. We need to be building publicly run community health centres to move health care out of our hospitals and into our communities. We need to build nursing homes and expand homecare to move senior out of hospital beds into the community. We need to provide publicly run reproductive health clinics to provide services to women in the most compassionate and appropriate manner. We need to build appropriate residential care centres for autistic adults and for those with mental disabilities. We need a centre for youth struggling with mental illness. We need public transportation infrastructure to provide convenient and regular transit within our cities and between them.
However, the common thread that must tie our infrastructure investments is sustainability. Infrastructure projects must be carbon neutral or reduce the province’s carbon emissions. They must reduce operating costs, not increase them. New buildings, for example, need to the degree possible be net zero energy buildings. New transportation infrastructure needs to reduce vehicle use, not increase it. We cannot afford to have investments in infrastructure increase our debt. Spending priorities will have to be re-ordered. For example, moving health care into the community and out of the hospitals will reduce health care costs. Paying for childcare to ensure single Moms can go to work will reduce social assistance costs. We must raise revenue by ensuring everyone pays their fair share. We must drastically reduce tax avoidance, we must get a fair return on the sale of natural resources by increasing royalties, we need to charge tolls on our provincial highways at the borders, so the companies which cause the most wear and tear to our highways pay up. To generate the income to support new health, social and green infrastructure we will need to charge for things we want less of, such as sugar sweetened drinks and carbon.
What I will not support are initiatives that give advantage to the few over the many. I will not support initiatives only designed to maximize the profits of corporations at the expense of our people, our communities and our environment. Under the leadership of both Louis Robichaud and Mr. Richard Hatfield we built a society in New Brunswick that placed a high value on caring and sharing, values that are rooted in our families and in our communities. Since that time we have lost our way. It is time we find our way back home.
Mr. Speaker, young people want a reason to stay in New Brunswick. There needs to be work, and meaningful work that is will build a fairer, greener and a more democratic society. We are small enough, we are smart enough and we are brave enough to do this. We can build a new society, a new economy that values everyone, no matter what their lot in life – where government works with people in their local communities to strengthen their local economies, to help them become more self-reliant and resilient.
And we have a long overdue obligation to seek reconciliation with the Wolastoqiyik, the Passamaquoddy and Mi’kmaq people. As legislators we have a responsibility to pursue reconciliation and that means addressing aboriginal title, aboriginal languages and upholding our treaty obligations. Today we are meeting on the unseeded territory of the Wolastoqiyik or Maliseet people. New Brunswick will never be whole; we will never be able to truly move forward until justice is done towards the indigenous peoples of this land.
None of this will be achievable until we staunch the hemorrhage in our democracy. Partisanship has become toxic. While robust debate may occur within party caucuses, it certainly has not been the case in the Legislative Assembly. This must change. The majority of MLAs have little to do in this House. It’s is time to liberate them so they can truly represent their constituents, so they can work diligently as legislators without having to tow a party line, and so they can provide the kind of surveillance over the use of public funds that our citizens deserve. It is time to paint citizens back into the picture. As legislators we need to hear from New Brunswickers directly when considering important or complex bills. And New Brunswickers need to hear the testimony of expert witnesses to gain a greater appreciation for the strengths and weaknesses of proposed legislation so they can develop informed opinions. Major new policy initiatives need to go out to our citizenry as green papers or white papers so they can develop an understanding of the issues and an awareness of the options for resolving them, so they can develop informed opinions. We need to reinstate the viewpoint of former Premier Richard Hatfield which is that the business of government is the business of the people, and operate with a transparency that reflects that.
When citizens request information, it should be provided. When citizens are seeking information they should be able to readily find it. We need to restore the role of our public service to serve the public and advise the government. Not stonewall the public and provide government with what it wants to hear. Let’s banish bureaucrats and reinstate public servants. And we need to restore the reputation of politicians – regain the trust of the people of this province. That is at once the easiest and most difficult task in front of us. MLAs need to be able to do their jobs as representatives and legislators, and this cannot happen unless the parties take a step back. And this will not happen unless; we as MLAs take a personal stand and commit to do the job we were elected to do.
As New Brunswickers, we agree on far more than we disagree. New Brunswickers wants us to cooperate to slay the dragons that hound us, rather than spending our time trying to run each other through, while the dragons ravage the countryside. This is a new Legislature; there is a new Executive Council. We have the chance to breathe fresh air into this place. John Lennon said, “A dream you dream alone is only a dream. A dream you dream together is reality.” My hope is that we can dream together in this house to face our challenges and conquer them for the sake of our children and their children. Now is not the time for conformity. Now is not the time for mediocrity. Now is the time for ingenuity, for transformation. As Tommy Douglas said, “We should never, never be afraid or ashamed about dreams. The dreams won’t all come true; we won’t always make it; but where there is no vision a people perish. Where people have no dreams and no hopes and aspirations, life becomes dull and a meaningless wilderness.”
So let us dream no little dreams, but let us dream the dreams of of our peoples, First Nations, Acadians, angolophone and newcomers, young and old, and not let ourselves be distracted by that rich man behind the curtain who is trying his hardest to frighten us into submission. Thank you, Mr. Speaker.