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Recovery of New Brunswick economy after COVID-19 becoming main election issue

FREDERICTON — One week into the first election campaign in Canada since the COVID-19 pandemic, the big issue is how the next New Brunswick government will manage the province's economy through the crisis and after it.

FREDERICTON — One week into the first election campaign in Canada since the COVID-19 pandemic, the big issue is how the next New Brunswick government will manage the province's economy through the crisis and after it.

During past election campaigns, parties fought over polarizing issues that drew public outcry such as fracking or skyrocketing auto insurance rates. But this time, it's all about rebuilding the COVID-ravaged economy, according to J.P. Lewis, political science professor at the University of New Brunswick.

"We have the pandemic," Lewis said in an interview Monday. "Especially with the two more competitive parties, there could be two very distinct ways to how they are going to govern the next few years in light of a recession and in light of government revenues down."

Lewis said Progressive Conservative Leader Blaine Higgs is promising stability and to keep government spending under control. Liberal Leader Kevin Vickers, Lewis said, believes more spending is needed to stimulate the economy.

Lewis described the first week of the campaign as "sleepy" and said he was looking forward to seeing some polling numbers.

On the campaign trail Monday, Vickers said a Liberal government would leverage more money from the federal government to pay for infrastructure projects across the province.

During a stop in Riverview, N.B., he said the infrastructure cutbacks imposed by Higgs' Tory government could contract the province's economy.

Vickers said Ottawa in 2018 set aside $673 million over 10 years for projects across New Brunswick, but 78 per cent of those funds remain unallocated.

"My government will not leave hundreds of millions of dollars on the table when they are needed by New Brunswick business people and our citizens," Vickers said. "We have to invest to get our economy going."

Vickers would not say how much he planned to spend, but said it would be "sufficient to ensure our economy is growing and the people of New Brunswick have hope and opportunity."

Higgs responded Monday by saying he wants federal funding, but needs flexibility on how to spend the money.

"I just don't want federal dollars prescribing to me that I must spend taxpayer dollars on something that we don't need," he said.

Higgs said he knows New Brunswick needs improved services and repaired highways. But, he continued, the province also needs a clear, financially sustainable path forward.

On a campaign stop outside St. Joseph's Hospital in Saint John, Higgs promised to reduce wait times for hip replacement and knee replacement surgeries province-wide if he's re-elected.

The goal, he said, is to reduce wait times for those surgeries by 50 per cent by March 2021.

"We're not just saying we're going to throw money at it," Higgs told reporters. "We're going to organize it differently and we're going to work with people who know how to make it happen, to make it happen."

Higgs said the health system needs to increase capacity, improve scheduling and leverage technology.

"By March 31, 2022, we'll ensure that 85 per cent of hip replacement surgeries and 75 per cent of knee replacement surgeries will be done within the 182-day national standard," he said.

Green leader David Coon said Monday a Green government would redesign senior care in the province.

Speaking at a seniors home in Fredericton, Coon said he would allow residents in nursing and special care homes to name a family caregiver to their care team.

He also called on the chief electoral officer to reserve the first two hours of polling days for seniors and other vulnerable people so they can vote in a safer environment.

"This will help reduce the stress and anxiety they may face having to choose to vote in person in a provincial election during a pandemic," Coon said.

People's Alliance leader Kris Austin said Monday his party is pushing for greater use of remote health care.

Austin said in a news release that New Brunswickers have come to count on the medical services provided by doctors through virtual visits via video conferencing services.

"Virtual care is health care reimagined," he said. "Virtual Care can take mental health and addiction services out of our ERs and put them in our homes, school and work."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 24, 2020.

Kevin Bissett, The Canadian Press

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