New Brunswick is heading into a provincial election on 27th September after four years of aggressive attacks on workers by the ruling Liberal Party. Successive Liberal and Conservative governments, in seamless continuity, have rolled back the gains made by workers over the past half century. Both parties make promises to workers while in opposition, but instantly betray the working class once they get into power. As a result, New Brunswick workers are increasingly skeptical of the idea that governments are there to work for them and are sick and tired of the status quo. In the 2006 election, the NB NDP only won 5.1% of the vote; but with solid organizing efforts in this election, the NDP has the potential to win mass support if it were to offer a clear-headed analysis and solution to the problems workers face.
The Liberal Party, under the leadership of Shawn Graham, won the 2006 election by promising New Brunswick workers a public auto insurance plan to combat rising insurance costs. In a 2005 letter to the executive director of the New Brunswick Union of Public and Private Employees, then opposition leader Graham stated, “…establishing a public automobile insurance system here in New Brunswick is one of our main priorities as a Party. Just recently, at our 2005 Biennial Convention, Liberal delegates from all over New Brunswick adopted a resolution, which stated, ‘a Liberal government will put in place a public insurance system for automobiles of personal and commercial usage.’” But the promise proved empty, and the public auto insurance program never materialized.
Bernard Lord’s Conservative government, which preceded the current Liberal government, hired investment banking firm TD Securities to examine the possibility of selling off New Brunswick’s power utility, NB Power, or some of its assets. The Conservatives began the process of selling off NB Power by breaking it up into competing subsidiaries. At the time, the Liberals criticized the Conservative’s plan to sell off NB Power and promised that if elected, they would not sell off the public utility. In 2009, the Liberals attempted to sell NB Power to Hydro Quebec for $4.8-billion, even though NB Power had brought in $542-million for the province between 2005 and 2009. After months of protests and pressure from unions and workers, the deal was called off. The Conservatives opposed the sale of NB Power and have attempted to cash in politically by calling on the Liberals to put off the deal until this fall’s election, to make it an election issue.
The most drastic change implemented by the Liberals was the restructuring of the tax system, described by the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) as, “possibly one of the most regressive proposals put forward by any government anywhere in Canada.” In their submission to the New Brunswick Legislative Assembly Select Committee on Tax Review, CUPE showed that the Liberal’s new tax regime features massive tax cuts to businesses and to the highest income earners, effective tax increases for the lowest income earners, and a minimum reduction of $100-million per year in provincial revenue. The new regime is to be incrementally phased in by 2012. The new tax structure will have two tax brackets: 9% for people making under $35,000, and 12% for those whose income exceeds this figure. The new tax regime slashes commercial property taxes, incrementally reduces the corporate tax rate from 13% to 8% and cuts the former top marginal tax rate from 17.95% to 12%. According to CUPE, the highest 1,000 income earners could save an average of $60,000 each from the changes, while the lowest 20% of income earners could expect an effective income loss of $5,300.
Where does the NDP stand in this election?
The NB NDP has never held more than one seat in the New Brunswick legislature, and has not had an elected MLA since 2004. During the current election campaign, the NDP has successfully organized riding associations and nominated candidates under the direction of campaign organizer Dominic Cardy. The NDP’s platform is promising to “protect front-line public services,” including health care and education. They are justly claiming, “The Conservatives and Liberals will cut health and education after the election… you can’t keep cutting taxes without cutting spending.” But, in an interview with the Telegraph Journal, Duguay promised that the NB NDP would maintain the current corporate income tax rate of 11%. In an attempt to win “middle class voters,” the NB NDP leadership have gone along with the corporate media in drumming up hysteria over the province’s debt in order to gain credibility as a party that stands for “fiscal responsibility.” This shrill rhetoric only serves to back up the bosses’ austerity plans. Cardy’s campaign has hammered on relatively unimportant issues, like cutting MLAs’ pay, in an attempt to divert attention away from the fact that the NDP is not offering real solutions to the urgent needs of New Brunswick workers.
To support their campaign of “fiscal responsibility,” the current NDP leadership have repeatedly brought up New Brunswick’s $8.3-billion debt and $742-million deficit. In an editorial, Dominic Cardy described New Brunswick as “a small province, with an ageing population sitting far from the centre of the world economy… we survive on federal transfer payments, payments that will be cut as Ottawa struggles to get its own fiscal crisis under control.” (Our emphasis.) The leadership is entirely correct when it says that because of the financial crisis, Ottawa will try and reduce New Brunswick’s transfer payments. However, it does not follow that workers should passively accept these cuts. Why should workers pay for the bosses’ crisis? If the NDP leadership wanted to display real leadership for the province’s working class movement, they would be promising to lead a fight against the federal government’s cuts and attacks.
Furthermore, the NB NDP leadership has wrongly accepted the rhetoric coming from the Conservatives and Liberals that there is no money to be had. The federal Liberals and Conservatives have spent over $15-billion of taxpayers’ money on the war in Afghanistan. In the last federal election, the Tories campaigned to give corporations a $50-billion tax break. When the financial crisis was erupting, Harper “pre-emptively” bailed out the Big Five banks to the tune of $75-billion. He also set up a fund of another $200-billion to back-stop the banks in case they needed to borrow money. Just this summer, the federal government announced the purchase of $16-billion worth of fighter jets, the largest military purchase in the history of this country.
Rather than showing a way forward for workers, the NDP leadership is, in actuality, trying to reign the movement in. In the Telegraph Journal, Cardy chided David Alward, the Progressive Conservative leader, for being reckless, saying, “Mr. Alward is peddling fantasies when he promises a general physician for every family.” The NDP is correct in challenging the Tories’ promises to improve social services, given that both the Liberals and Tories have taken turns slashing these services for decades. But it is reprehensible to think that each person having a family doctor should be considered to be a “fantasy!” The NDP should not be brow-beating workers into reducing their expectations. It should be the party that raises workers’ expectations!
The major issue that the NDP has chosen for this election campaign is their “20/50” bill, which they promise to introduce if they get a member elected to the legislature. The bill would cut MLAs’ pay by 20%, their pensions by 50%, and severance pay for MLAs, who quit or are not re-elected, by 83%. Furthermore, they promise that any elected NDP candidates will take the reduced pay and “donate the rest to charity.” The current base salary for an MLA would be reduced from $85,000 to $68,000. However, the NDP has been championing this issue as a way to reduce government spending. We support the demand to reduce MLA remuneration, but on political grounds, not economic grounds. For the purpose of accountability, we maintain that workers’ politicians should not receive a salary higher than that of a skilled worker. However, cutting MLAs’ pensions will not improve the economic situation in New Brunswick; their pensions have no bearing on the dynamics of capitalist accumulation that are the real problem. Therefore, even on this point, the NDP campaign is not pointing a real way forward for the movement.
New Brunswick’s workers have been hit hard by mill and mine closures across the province. The most recent crisis of capitalism hit New Brunswick early with the collapse of the US housing industry. In 2007 alone, an estimated 7,500 workers lost their jobs in the forestry sector across New Brunswick. Of the 85 mills operating in 1995, only 16 were still in operation in 2008. As with the rest of their platform, the NB NDP fails to provide a real plan for good, quality jobs for the province’s workers. In an editorial in the Telegraph Journal, Cardy outlines how the NDP proposes to create jobs in the province, saying, “Economic success is built on a healthy and educated population and excellent infrastructure. A province full of healthy and educated people will attract money and immigrants.” Although it would be nice to believe this, we understand that under capitalism, the bosses will set up businesses where they can make the greatest profit, not where the people are healthiest.
Recent governments have handed out hundreds of millions of dollars in “forgivable loans” to encourage companies—especially call centres—to operate in NB. Cardy promises that the NDP will “end cash handouts to business, and replace them with tax credits for hiring new workers.” Tax credits and cash hand-outs are fundamentally the same tactic; neither addresses the fact that in the competitive market of capitalism, there is a global race to the bottom, where capitalists easily move operations to areas where workers are more desperate and oppressed and can be forced to accept lower wages. The leadership would be wise to look to the preamble of its own constitution for inspiration in answering the problems facing workers: “The New Brunswick New Democratic Party believes that the social, economic, and political progress of New Brunswick can only be assured by the application of democratic socialist principle.” Defining democratic socialist principles, it further reads, “The direction of the production and distribution of good and services to meet the social and individual needs rather than to make a profit; the regulation and control of monopolistic productive and distributive organizations through economic and social planning. Towards these ends and where necessary the extension of the principle of social ownership.”
Fightback supports a program that addresses the root causes of the economic crisis of New Brunswick: “A socialized plan of production for the fisheries, timber and agriculture! Protect the environment and jobs. End the anarchy of the market in the resource industry. Nationalize the commanding heights of the economy under workers’ control! Break with the anarchy of the capitalist free market! For a socialist planned economy, in which unemployment will be abolished and society will inscribe on its banner: The universal right to work.”
The NDP needs to abandon its austerity plan that they euphemistically refer to as “fiscal responsibility.” The current NB NDP leadership is either unfamiliar with, or has rejected, the socialist principles upon which the party was founded, and therefore cannot conceive of the real solutions to the problems faced by New Brunswick workers. The leadership has resorted to a cynical attempt to win votes through the hollow populism of attacking MLAs’ wages and pensions. Only an NDP, running under a socialist platform, can offer a real alternative to the violence inflicted on workers by the anarchy of capitalist markets. In this way, instead of challenging for just one seat, the NB NDP could be challenging for power.
The Conservatives and Liberals have plenty of money for their friends in the banks, yet they claim there is no money for working people in the “have-not” provinces! It is clear that the money is there; but so long as big business is in power, workers will have to foot the bill for these wasteful expenses. Unless we get organized to fight this in New Brunswick, this will translate into cuts in transfer payments and further cuts to our standard of living down the line. In principle, we agree with fiscal responsibility; but true fiscal responsibility only makes sense if capitalism—this incredibly wasteful system—has been overcome and we have democratic control of the commanding heights of the economy. The NDP should adopt the message, “Nationalize the commanding heights of the economy under workers control!”