Local PC, NDP and Green Party candidates discussed contentious environmental issues such as a carbon tax, fracking and glyphosate spraying Tuesday night in Sackville — without the participation of the Liberal who has represented the New Brunswick riding of Memramcook-Tantramar for the last four years.
Organizers of the all-candidates’ debate said Liberal Bernard LeBlanc could not take part because of other commitments. (The next day, LeBlanc’s campaign manager said she would relay my request for an interview to him so I could ask why he missed the debate. LeBlanc returned my call more than 24-hours later, on Thursday evening, explaining that he had been busy campaigning. When asked why he missed the all-candidates’ debate, he said it was because of “a personal commitment I had made some time ago,” but he would not say what it was.)
The two hour debate, organized by the non-profit environmental group EOS Eco-Energy, covered a wide range of issues, but proposals for a carbon tax revealed the sharpest divisions between the Progressive Conservatives on the one hand and the New Democratic Party and Green candidates on the other.
“Our party’s position is crystal clear,” said PC candidate Etienne Gaudet. “We do not support a carbon tax. We will fight every step of the way (against) the carbon tax. It is a tax we cannot afford.”
Gaudet went on to say that a carbon tax would not work to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and would cost each New Brunswick family $1,200 a year.
“If history has taught us anything,” Gaudet said, “that money will be wasted. The best place for that $1,200 is in your pocket, not the government’s pocket.”
“We do need a carbon tax,” Green candidate Megan Mitton replied. “Economists on both ends of the spectrum, the political spectrum, say that this is the best way forward to put a price on pollution and help us transition our economy away from fossil fuels.”
Mitton noted that the federal government is planning to impose a carbon tax on any province that fails to implement one.
She added that the New Brunswick Liberal government’s policy of diverting money from existing gasoline taxes into a climate change fund will not likely win federal approval, while the provincial Conservative plan to join other provinces in a court challenge to a federally imposed carbon tax would cost a lot of money and would likely be unsuccessful.
“Ultimately, the federal government will impose a plan on us and I strongly support coming up with a plan that is best for New Brunswickers,” she said, adding that the damaging effects of climate change would be even more expensive to cope with than trying to mitigate them now with measures such as a carbon tax.
“We need to think of it as…putting a price on pollution and it is proven to work when you put a price on pollution,” Mitton said.
For her part, NDP candidate Hélène Boudreau pointed to the plan for a carbon reduction fund in her party’s platform.
“When you say (carbon) tax, you scare people,” she said, “when you say (carbon) reduction fund, then they ask questions.”
Boudreau added that while a carbon tax would make individual, everyday activities more expensive, the NDP plan would return one third of that money to low and middle-income people as a rebate, another third would be invested in job-creating, renewable energy projects with the remaining funds dedicated to green infrastructure programs such as making homes more energy efficient.
“The carbon reduction fund, based on the money coming in, would be reinvested, so in 10, 15 years, we will have a greener economy (and) greener jobs,” Boudreau said. “It’s actually about economic health (that is) sustainable for the next 30 to 40 years,” she added. (To read about the carbon reduction fund in the NDP platform, click here.)
The candidates also differed on the issue of whether to allow companies to drill hydraulic fracturing wells to extract shale gas in New Brunswick.
Green candidate Megan Mitton said she was strongly against allowing any fracking.
“There’s more and more science being released continually about how it isn’t safe,” she said. “It pollutes water, there’s evidence now of birth defects for women who are pregnant living near fracked wells and there are so many health concerns that come to mind let alone thinking of all the animals in our ecosystems and what could happen to our watershed.”
Mitton added that investing in the extraction of more fossils fuels would only slow the transition to a greener economy based on renewable energy.
NDP candidate Hélène Boudreau also spoke strongly against fracking adding that she favours a legislated ban rather than the current moratorium adopted by the Liberals.
However, PC candidate Etienne Gaudet acknowledged that his party would consider allowing fracking in areas where there is strong public support for it. But he also said that he has not seen such support in Memramcook-Tantramar among the hundreds of people he has spoken to since his campaign began.
“It is clear there is no deep desire of any kind for fracking in this riding,” he said, suggesting that if he’s elected, he would represent the wishes of the people here.
On the issue of spraying the herbicide glyphosate, the NDP’s Hélène Boudreau gave an emphatic, one-sentence answer.
“Ban glyphosate spraying on Crown land and all other forested areas in New Brunswick, period,” she said.
Green candidate Megan Mitton agreed, adding there should also be a ban on glyphosate spraying along power lines.
Etienne Gaudet of the PCs said that as a small, fruit and vegetable farmer, he does not use Roundup, the commercial product that contains glyphosate.
He said a PC government would review forestry spraying, but added that the federal Health Department supports its use under certain circumstances.
“A government that comes into power has difficult, difficult, complicated decisions to make on many messy issues,” Gaudet said. “Make no mistake about it, the use of Roundup, glyphosate, is a complicated decision.”