FREDERICTON — New Brunswick's Tory leader is aiming to make the federally mandated carbon tax the defining issue of the campaign for the Sept. 24 provincial election.
"I think this election is going to be a referendum on carbon tax. There will be other issues but that certainly will be a main one," Blaine Higgs said Tuesday.
Higgs said he'll refund any carbon tax levied on consumers by Ottawa, by using federal funding to bring in equivalent tax cuts under provincial control.
He made the announcement in a followup to Monday's campaign pledge that, should he win the election, he'll oppose the carbon levy the federal government is requiring.
"We are saying we are taxed enough. We are not going to be putting this on and we're going to stop this carbon tax debate and we're going to work with other provinces to see that it doesn't happen," Higgs said, joining forces with his counterparts in Ontario, Saskatchewan and Alberta.
Their approach mirrors their Tory cousins in Ottawa. In a speech to the federal party's convention last week in Halifax, Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer promised that his first act as prime minister would be to get rid of the federal government's carbon tax scheme.
A federal vote is scheduled for October 21, 2019.
Ottawa has said the provinces must place a levy on carbon, and that it should be sufficient to meet federal plans for carbon reduction.
The Trudeau government has said that if provinces don't place a levy on consumers aimed at reducing their consumption of fossil fuels, Ottawa will do so, and Ottawa will then have final say in how the revenue-neutral tax is funnelled back to provincial taxpayers.
The New Brunswick Liberals under Premier Brian Gallant have said they'll take a portion of the existing excise tax on gasoline and dedicate it towards a climate change fund, although it is unclear whether that will meet Ottawa's requirements.
"For us, what's important is that we play our role to fight climate change in a way that respects New Brunswick's economic realities, challenges and opportunities," Gallant said Monday.
"The plan we've put forward will phase out coal by 2030, will ask the largest emitters to pay their fair share when it comes to the emissions they're putting out, and we will ensure there will not be one cent more on consumers in our province."
Higgs has said a Tory government would take other measures to ensure New Brunswick will "continue to meet or exceed our emission targets" for carbon and other greenhouse gases, though few specifics have been released to date.
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Gallant said the Progressive Conservative don't have a real plan.
"Their lack of a plan demonstrates they don't take climate change seriously. Also, they are, for political reasons, neglecting to put a plan forward that will protect consumers in our province," Gallant said.
Higgs is critical of the Liberal plan, saying that redirecting gas tax revenues will cut funding that has been going to municipalities for infrastructure.
"We don't need new taxes on the people of New Brunswick. We are taxed-out now. We are going to spend within the money we have today and we're going to get better results," Higgs said.
Greg Byrne, a spokesman for the New Brunswick Liberal Association, said the Tory plan would cause a provincial budget shortfall of over $380 million, and said it would likely be offset by deep cuts in education and healthcare.
Elizabeth May to chip in
Elsewhere on the campaign trail Tuesday, Gallant said if his government is re-elected, it will create five non-urgent care centres to reduce emergency room wait times and improve primary care. Less urgent cases would be advised to visit a non-urgent care centre.
The centres would be established in the Saint John area, greater Moncton, Fredericton region, and two in northern New Brunswick.
New Democratic Party Leader Jennifer McKenzie said if her party was elected, it would commit to saving a not-for-profit nursing home system. She said the province needs to say no to for-profit nursing homes.
McKenzie also said she'd increase funding to boost the level of care for nursing home residents from 3.1 hours per day to 3.5 hours.
And federal Green Leader Elizabeth May was in the province helping to campaign in the riding of Memramcook-Tantramar. She travels to Fredericton Wednesday.