How a fiscal leopard changes spots

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New Brunswick’s former Finance Minister Blaine Higgs, God love him, has always been a straight shooter. Except when he hasn’t.

Whilst in Tory office for all of four years, he inveighed against the provincial government’s tendency towards profligacy, calling for deep and painful cuts in the public service.

He suggested that everything “must be on the table”, and that included a serious review of his government’s tax policies – even going as far as intimating, off the script, that a prudent hike in the HST might save New Brunswick years of unnecessary fiscal pain at the hands of international bond holders who held – and continue to hold the province’s $12-billlion long-term debt in abeyance.

He talked darkly about streamlining the educational system; about cutting services to rural citizens; about rationalizing the way we pay for basic infrastructure, like roads, highways, sewer systems and pubic meeting spaces.

Apart from a few trims to the fiscal petticoat that hides a multitude of sins in this province, he largely failed and largely through no fault of his commitment or character. The political winds within his own party of silos and principalities were simply not in his favour. (Have they ever been for any sitting provincial finance minister in any province of this country)?

Still, now that the man is drifting freely in the soft winds of a durable New Brunswick spring – far from from the tethers of Cabinet discipline that once constrained him – one must wonder at the temerity of his latest proposal, a proposal that he must know has no chance of finding purchase in Canada’s only bilingual province.

Conflate New Brunswick’s two health authorities, he says, into one fully bilingual one. Why? “Because,” he told the Saint John Telegraph-Journal last week, “we don’t have a choice. In order to provide the quality of health care we need in the province, we need to look at how we can work more closely together, not further apart.”

Leaving aside, for the moment, just how breathtakingly ambitious – both politically and administratively – such a move would prove, the obvious question arises: If Mr. Higgs feels this strongly now, having prowled the perimeters of the political wilderness for seven months, why didn’t he speak up (as he did about public service cuts, education and infrastructure) just as forcefully when he had a better chance to use his position to win friends and influence people on an important matter of public policy?

Answer: Because, on this file alone, he would have been burned like a bad bagel, kicked to the backbenches and consigned to vacant seat in the “independent” section of the legislative gallery by the whips and goons of his own party. And he knows it.

Of course, on the face of it, his proposition to merge the province’s health authorities is fatally flawed, if only because it can’t work. The law stipulates in excruciating detail that health, like education, is a central plank in the Equal Opportunity platform that has guided New Brunswick politics since the late 1960s. Dismantling this apparatus would be tantamount to declaring war (real or imagined) on the rights of Francophones.

Beyond this, though, Mr. Higgs’ late-game candor conveniently ignores the real problem with health care in this province, which is not linguistic “duality” but service “duplication” and the fact that nobody in government or health authorities seems to know (or, perhaps more accurately, cares to think) about how to both profitably privatize and regulate certain elements of geriatric and long-term care and, in so doing, remove huge costs from critical-care facilities.

Methinks, politics will always win out when its erstwhile gunmen aim low and shoot from the lip.

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