Over one of the busiest legislative sittings recently seen, the twin crises of cost of living and health care were never far from the centre of debate.
New Brunswick’s legislative assembly rose for the summer on Friday, having passed 33 bills in 24 days. Those included changes to better prepare New Brunswick for a future pandemic and a landmark child welfare bill.
But much of the 30 minutes set aside each sitting day for opposition parties to pose questions to the government were spent focused on record gas prices, inflation and what that meant for New Brunswickers.
“These people are struggling, they need to make difficult decisions, they need help. What do you answer them, because the price at the pump is too high this morning,” said Liberal Leader Roger Melanson earlier in June.
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That was the day the Higgs government announced its “food and fuel” program: a one-time payment to social assistance recipients that will cost the province about $20 million.
Other measures to address skyrocketing costs of living included the temporary 3.8 per cent cap on rental increases and a property tax spike protection program for commercial landlords.
Premier Blaine Higgs pointed to his government’s focus on social programs as one of the defining achievements of the sitting.
“The social programs and what we’ve had to address in meaningful ways, because it was the right thing to do … there’s been numerous areas that we’ve made major change,” Higgs said.
But opposition parties have said the programs didn’t go nearly far enough. The Liberals repeatedly pointed to the fact that the one-time social assistance bump does nothing to help the working poor. The Greens have been extremely critical of the temporary rent cap, which they say just pushes unreasonable rent increases to next year.
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“He’s just throwing out breadcrumbs with these one-time-only things,” Green Leader David Coon told reporters on June 3.
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“There needs to be thoughtful public policy brought to the table and implemented that actually addresses real problems and not simply trying to manage the issues, which is all he’s trying to do.”
When it comes to the overstretched health-care system, little is being addressed through legislation. Health care has been one of the main focuses during Higgs’ years as premier, but two years since receiving a majority mandate and almost four since he took over the premier’s office, Higgs says true progress is still in the future.
“We’ve implemented programs that need now to be executed on and the health plan is an example of that,” Higgs said.
When the province released its health plan in November of 2021, few details on how to solve recruitment and retention issues were included. How exactly the province plans to address human resource shortages has been a common question period topic for the official opposition over the last several weeks.
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“We really want to know if this minister understands the magnitude of the problem in front of us. We have significant problems in health care — under your watch, it’s crumbling,” Melanson said earlier this week.
But according to Higgs, solving the issues plaguing the health-care system isn’t as easy as just filling doctor and nurse vacancies. He said it will mostly involve an effort to work within what the province already has.
“You listen in the [legislature] and think, you just hire more people and all will be better, but there’s two factors in that. One is we’re not going to be able to hire people in the numbers that one might argue we require, so we can do better by being innovative in how we manage health care,” Higgs said.
Responding to Melanson in question period, Health Minister Dorothy Shephard pointed out that it wasn’t too long ago that a Liberal government was struggling with the same issue.
“I will put my [record as] one minister over 21 months up against their two ministers in four years any day,” Shephard said.
The government will have a chance to defend its record soon enough — two byelections are scheduled for the Miramichi area on June 20.
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