Environmental and economic issues divided the local MLA candidates for Memramcook-Tantramar at last Thursday’s all-candidate debate while the audience seemed to be united
The first hour of Thursday’s debate proceeded without conflict, until an audience member asked each of the candidates to give their thoughts on the concept of direct, revenue-neutral carbon tax. Last year the federal government gave each province until this September to come up with their own plan for implementing a “carbon pricing system to meet the federal standard.” Federal standards uphold that a carbon price of $10 per tonne must be implemented this year, increasing to $20 on Jan. 1, 2019, and to $50 per tonne in 2022. British Columbia has proposed a direct, revenue-neutral carbon tax, meaning that revenues generated from taxing carbon emissions would be accommodated through equivalent reduction in other existing taxes or through direct payments to taxpayers.
Liberal incumbent Bernard LeBlanc spoke first, saying, “There will be no tax.” LeBlanc went on to say that the federally imposed tax would be observed by the province with no added cost to the residents of New Brunswick. Instead, Liberal premier Brian Gallant’s plan would take a portion of the existing tax on gasoline and put it in a new climate change fund.
Green party candidate Megan Mitton was next to speak, condemning the Liberal government’s proposal: “A carbon tax where no one sees the difference unfortunately defeats the purpose of a carbon tax.” Mitton continued by saying that the Liberal proposal may sound good, but is unlikely to be approved by the federal government. As an alternative, Mitton expressed her support of a revenue-neutral carbon tax similar to what British Columbia has proposed.
Progressive Conservative candidate Etienne Gaudet echoed his party leader’s statements on the carbon tax. “I’ve been very clear, our party has been very clear: We oppose wholeheartedly carbon tax,” Gaudet said. “It does not work, it will just switch pollution to other jurisdictions, and each family will be left with roughly – we anticipate, we calculate – $1,200 less in your pocket.” The New Brunswick Progressive Conservative party has stated that, if elected, they will take this issue to the courts if necessary.
During an open discussion period, Mitton said the Liberal and PC plans would both end with the federal government imposing their own concept of a carbon tax, taking the decision away from New Brunswick. Mitton specifically addressed Gaudet, saying, “I would also like to know where the $1,200 per year figure comes from. I’ve done research and I can’t seem to find that, and I invite the Progressive Conservative candidate to explain where that comes from.”
Gaudet began his response by saying, “Whether it is $1,200, $900, $700, people have been crystal clear, very clear to me as I go do my door-to-door in the area: They are tapped out. They cannot afford any more taxes.” He later said, “It might be slightly less, it might be slightly more; we’ve tried to get exact figures from the federal government on this stuff and they’re not releasing the information.”
At this point, NDP candidate Hélène Boudreau, whose party’s carbon tax proposal is to start a “carbon reduction fund” that gives low-income earners a rebate while also investing money into renewable energy and green infrastructure for the province’s future, interrupted Gaudet: “That is quite unfortunate that you’ve said, for about three debates now, ‘$1,200 per family,’ because that is a scare tactic.”
The audience applauded Boudreau as Gaudet said, “No, what is scary is going back to taxpayers for money that should stay in their pocket. A government’s role is not to tax people to death.”
Mitton made an attempt to respond, saying, “The government’s role is to tax people –” when Gaudet interrupted her: “No, Megan, no.” Mitton then elaborated, saying, “The government’s role is to tax people, and to provide services as a result,” to more applause from the audience.
PC leader Blaine Higgs has used the $1,200 statistic as an argument against the carbon tax as well. Campaigning in Moncton in August, Higgs said he estimated that a 12-cent-per-litre carbon tax combined with the existing gas tax would take $1,200 per year from a New Brunswick family.
Later into the debate, another audience member asked the candidates what they thought about the Irving Group of Companies and their role in New Brunswick’s economy and politics.
The Irving Group began in 1924 as Irving Oil Ltd. in Bouctouche, N.B., and is now a $10-billion collective of hundreds of companies. The Irving company’s dominance in New Brunswick has become controversial because of the environmental impact of their industries, their media-share monopoly and, most recently, their support of the Energy East pipeline.
LeBlanc expressed his gratitude for Irving, saying they employ 30,000 to 35,000 people in this province with good salaries: “We’re so happy – I don’t know what would happen if we didn’t have the Irvings.” He also listed the areas of industry the Irvings are involved in and emphasized their contribution to the New Brunswick economy, going on to say, “As far as their politics, they decide themselves what they want to do and how they apply their politics.”
Mitton garnered more cheers and applause from the audience when she responded that, although Irving is a big employer, “I think that they shouldn’t get such special treatment, and that they do have too much power.” Her further remarks against the Irving company’s environmentally detrimental practices and her proposal of a 40 per cent cap on corporations’ print media shares were met with more applause.
Gaudet echoed LeBlanc’s support of the Irving company’s influence on the New Brunswick economy. Gaudet added that, if elected, the PC party has committed to reviewing the 1982 forestry deal made between the Irvings and the previous PC government and he is proud that his party has the “courage to open this act again after 35 years.” Gaudet also said that the province “cannot treat them any differently than any other private company. It needs to be managed and I believe it is and it will be, definitely, under a PC government.”
Boudreau responded by saying, “Of course New Brunswickers appreciate that they have created jobs – I don’t think that they appreciate that they have the monopoly on everything from the paper to oil.” She added that the Irving monopoly on New Brunswick industry limits the province’s diversity, innovation and creation of new jobs: “The only thing we’ve done in the past 10 years that we can kind of say is that we’ve been the hub of call centres.… I think a strong voice like myself in Fredericton would definitely create that discussion.”
The debate – hosted by MASU and moderated by political science professor Dr. Mario Levesque – covered post-secondary education, social policy, the environment and the New Brunswick economy.
The general election will take place on Sept. 24.
At dissolution, the seat count in the New Brunswick legislature was 24 Liberals, 22 Progressive Conservatives, one Green, one Independent and one vacancy.