Blaine Higgs, the recently elected Conservative premier of New Brunswick, is quite remarkable, as far as premiers go.
When it comes to energy and the state of confederation, he’s not afraid to rope, throw and brand some sacred cows. That was clearly evident in the two-on-two interview Pipeline Newsand the Moosomin World-Spectatorhad with Premier Higgs and Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe just before the rally for resources in Moosomin was about to get underway on Feb. 16.
Just like Pipeline Newsis an anomaly in the journalism world, with a writer who actually built big-inch pipelines, Higgs is an anomaly in the political world. He’s a former executive with Irving Oil, and spent 33 years in a career that included refining and transportation. In other words, he’s probably forgotten more about then energy business than any other Canadian politician will ever know.
And thus it was clear, in the interview, his speech, and the post-speech interview, that he wants to get his province, a perennial recipient of federal equalization transfers, off the dole.
If it sounds eerily familiar to people in Saskatchewan, that’s because it is. We heard very similar words from Brad Wall in the first decade of this century, at a time when NDP Premier Lorne Calvert was indicating Saskatchewan would always be in and out of the have-not status. Since Wall became premier, and Scott Moe has succeeded him, Saskatchewan has been a have province. And we have not looked back.
Saskatchewan did that through, in large part, its natural resources. The oil boom was instrumental, but potash was, too. Agriculture gained strength.
Higgs took over a province that has its own natural gas reserves, but its provincial government put a ban on hydraulic fracturing. Thus, its previous government was willing to take money from equalization, a good chunk of it derived from fracking, oil and gas, but not develop its own resources.
Although these aren’t the words he used, Higgs essentially said, “to hell with that noise.” The moratorium was lifted two months ago.
He said, “New Brunswick’s received transfer payments for a long time. I’m not proud of that fact. But equally, I recognize the importance of a united country that makes that possible. So it’s not acceptable to see stranded assets that are devalued. And having people speak up is going to be huge. And then working through, in our case, I feel like we’re a stranded asset in New Brunswick, with difficulty getting through Quebec.
He added, “And the disconnect is in transfer payments that keep coming and coming, regardless of the impact of where the revenue is coming from. You have to connect the dots, and say, ‘How does our country survive and thrive?’
“Well, it thrives from, it always has thrived from, natural resources.”
Later on in the interview, he said, “We say no to an industry that has 40 or 50 years experience, but yet that’s okay?
“Well isn’t. We can’t expect other people to pay our way if we’re not trying to do our best. I’m not saying we’re able to do that at this point, because we’re not. And that’s why I value the benefits we get from transfer payments. And I’m to look at the Saskatchewan position, as Premier Moe mentioned, and looking at that and saying, ‘We can do that. We can move from a recipient to a contributor.’”
It is evident that the ‘have’ provinces, the ones that contribute to equalization, the wealthy provinces, by and large exploit their petroleum resources. Alberta is the poster child. Saskatchewan is in there, too. But even (literally) poor Newfoundland clawed its way into ‘have’ status on the strength of offshore oil development.
That brings us to Quebec. It has natural gas, and evidently lots of it. Michael Binnion, who heads up Questerre Energy (which has oil production near Redvers), has been trying for years to develop that natural gas. But they won’t let him, or anyone else, due to a moratorium on fracking. He says he can replace a substantial amount of Quebec’s gas imports from the U.S. with domestic, Quebec supply.
So far, no dice. And the current Quebec premier was even so bold as to denigrate oil as “dirty” when referring to pipelines through his province. No mention of the “dirty” Saudi oil tankers docking in Montreal, however.
Maybe Quebec needs to adopt the concepts that Saskatchewan embraced – and that New Brunswick is starting to – that you should develop your own resources, instead of depending on a cheque from another province developing its resources.
For decades, Saskatchewan’s population stagnated. Wall used to talk of the Saskatchewan graduation gift – a set of luggage to leave the province. Higgs said, “We’ve had a huge exodus of people that have moved here because that’s were the jobs are. They have to do that. Well, here we have that opportunity, right in New Brunswick, and we’re not taking advantage of it.”
Around the time Saskatchewan became a ‘have’ province, people started staying, and our population started growing. Maybe New Brunswick can achieve the same.