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New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs walks onto stage to deliver the State of the Province address, in Fredericton, in a Jan. 31, 2019, file photo.Stephen MacGillivray/The Canadian Press

New Brunswick’s Progressive Conservative government painted a grim picture of the province’s economic position in a speech from the throne Tuesday.

“Currently, New Brunswick is one of the most indebted, most rapidly aging and least literate provinces in Canada,” Lt.-Gov. Brenda Murphy said as she read the speech in the legislature. “Approximately 25 per cent of our children live in poverty, and close to 34 per cent of New Brunswick households have incomes so low that they cannot pay taxes.”

The speech identified priority areas for Premier Blaine Higgs’s government in the year ahead to help the province reverse course, including health care, education, sustainable communities, an energized private sector and a better civil service.

The Opposition Liberals say the province’s economy is in bad shape with the loss of a number of major employers, including the impending closure of the lead smelter in Belledune, announced last week. And they found the throne speech lacking.

“What we need here is a plan to grow the economy, a plan that’s going to bring hope and opportunity to our people,” said Liberal Leader Kevin Vickers. “It was essentially the same speech as last year.”

The throne speech said recent financial results show the work of the government over the past year is paying off. Second-quarter results for the 2019-2020 fiscal year show a projected surplus of $88.1 million compared to the budgeted surplus of $23.1 million. The net debt is projected to decrease by $232.7 million from budget.

On health care, the government is promising to improve emergency departments in Fredericton, Saint John and Moncton and open nurse practitioner clinics in those three cities. The government also said it would work with health specialists and advocates to develop a strategy to combat youth vaping.

Among the education initiatives in the speech, the government said it would explore new approaches to allow more children to learn both French and English.

For the private sector, the Tory government said it would reduce red tape for businesses and increase immigration targets to 7,500 newcomers annually by 2024.

“The province has a great record for attracting people, but we need to do a better job of keeping them here,” Murphy read. The government’s goal is to reach a one-year retention rate of 85 per cent by 2024.

The speech repeated the announcement from last week that the government is seeking a single private operator to take over operation of recreational cannabis sales.

The government is promising more action to combat climate change. It will introduce amendments to the Climate Change Act to allow for the regulation of greenhouse gas emissions from New Brunswick’s large emitters.

“Your government is working to establish a carbon pricing system and will introduce legislation seeking to achieve fairness for New Brunswickers in relation to our neighbours in the Atlantic Provinces,” Murphy said.

Among other initiatives, the government said it would amend the Residential Tenancies Act to allow victims of domestic violence to terminate their lease agreement early if there is a threat to their safety or to that of a child.

Green party Leader David Coon said the speech contained some good initiatives but fell short on attacking poverty and regional disparities.

Kris Austin, leader of the People’s Alliance, said he also saw some positives in the speech and will continue to support the minority government, at least until the spring.

“But again, it’s a two-part relationship there,” he cautioned. “It depends on what the government does, what they bring forward and what we’re able to accomplish with them.”

Premier Higgs said the government will continue on its current path and hope to get legislation passed.

“If that doesn’t get the confidence of the house, what else can we do? I didn’t come here to stay here. I came here to get a job done, and the only way to get the job done is to base our decisions on the reality of our province and on the facts we’re facing,” he said.

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