Asking the hoi polloi what the political elites must do to keep the status quo from dissolving before the eyes of the common man and woman is standard strategy for first-term governments in the early stages of what they dread will be a crushing disappointment to everyone, including themselves.
Still, New Brunswick Premier Brian Gallant (four months old in electoral years) does it with such earnest panache, you can almost believe the words that issue from his near-perfect mouth.
“We need all New Brunswickers to participate with their ideas, suggestions and concerns so we can have a dialogue about how we are going to get our finances in order in this province,” he told a press conference in Fredericton last week.
“In the next few months, we will have a very open dialogue that will be fruitful. . .I am asking all New Brunswickers to give us their two cents, to give us their ideas, suggestions and concerns so we can come up with the best policies to help us get our finances in shape. . .Everything is on the table.”
Oh really, Mr. Gallant?
How do you feel about the HST?
A two-percentage-point hike in the consumption tax of this province would reap roughly $65 million a year for New Brunswick’s public coffers. Over your four-year mandate, that would amount to $260 million – plenty of good scratch to justify a moratorium (a word with which I am sure you are familiar) on hikes to personal, business, corporate and property taxes.
And yet, messing with the HST has proven to be political suicide across this great, self-aware, enlightened country of ours, ever since Paul Martin proved it could be done at great expense to his own and his party’s career. Sure, he managed to balance the national accounts in the mid-1990s – a feat for which Canadians never forgave him – but not before “reform-minded” barracudas from the west successfully labelled him a card-carrying “tax-and-spender”. The mud stuck and, of course, the rest is history.
So, then, if not the HST, how about highway tolls?
As you, yourself, have said, New Brunswick is fairly brimming with roads and thoroughfares – from the southeast to the southwest, from the north to the netherlands of moose country, where anyone who owns an ATV or snowmobile happily careens to his or her little parcel of pastoral heaven at whim.
Meanwhile, Mainers, Quebecers, Prince Edward Islanders, and Nova Scotians merrily trundle along our corridors, paid with local tax dollars, to points beyond our borders with nary a concern for such esoterica as infrastructure, stopping only to take in a view, gobble a piece of homemade blueberry pie, belch, and be on their way.
But just try to raise the possibility of tolling these folks.
It looks good on paper, sure. Still, remember what happened the last time this option carried serious weight in government.
“Finance Minister Blaine Higgs is acknowledging that putting tolls on provincial highways is an idea he is examining as the New Brunswick government tries to dig itself out of an $820-million deficit,” the CBC reported back in 2011.
“Higgs was urged to consider the imposition of highway tolls at a pre-budget meeting in Fredericton. . .The finance minister said many people have indicated during the pre-budget consultations and surveys that they are willing to pay highway tolls as a way to whittle down the province’s substantial deficit. And he conceded the policy is ‘something that is of interest.’”
What happened to Higgs? What happened to his boss, David Alward?
Perhaps, then, the solution to New Brunswick’s fiscal problem lies squarely on the cutting edge of the agenda.
Eliminate hospital services; curtail educational programs; fire the province’s civil servants; give everyone who remains an axe, a cord of wood, a holy bible, and a prayer, and send them off into the fine woodlands they so evidently cherish, there to build new, pioneer lives for themselves, all over again.
And when the hoi polloi, crushingly disappointed by Mr. Gallant’s earnestly failed efforts to keep their status quo plumply intact, come mewling, perhaps the besieged premier might finally say:
“Yeah. . .log cabins don’t come equipped with Netflix. Read your damn social contract, for a change.”