Money for nothing and promises for free: a glut of uncosted campaign pledges

New Brunswick voters are being offered better senior care, more public art, cheaper student loans, lower apartment rents, frozen power rates even a fully equipped shop class in every high school.

But if political party platform-costing documents filed with Elections New Brunswick are to be believed it will all come at no cost to taxpayers.

"They're behaving as if they've figured out how to provide everyone with a free lunch, and as everyone knows there's no free lunch," said Green Party Leader David Coon about the number of multimillion-dollar promises made in the election so far that have come without price tags.

As of Tuesday, 134 promises made by the province's six political parties have been filed as required with Elections New Brunswick but 84 of those (63 percent)  come with no cost estimates attached, even though many will require millions of dollars to fulfil.

Liberals have the most no-cost promises on file with Elections NB so far, with 29 of their first 41 commitments submitted with what the agency calls "financial implications not prepared." 

But Progressive Conservatives have the highest percentage of promises in the no-cost category with 16 of their first 20 promises free of any price estimate.

"I don't have genuine numbers," PC Leader Blaine Higgs said two weeks ago explaining why his party has failed to fully supply many of its promise costs. "I don't have access to the numbers."

Transparency law loophole


New Brunswick has a law that requires parties to submit any commitments they make to Elections NB and encourages parties to price each promise "to ensure that electors obtain information on the financial implications of the election commitments." 

But although the Transparency in Elections Commitment Act also funds researchers at the legislative library to help parties cost their promises, the legislation stops short of making price tags mandatory. 

It's a loophole parties have been using regularly.

It was fully accounted for in the multi-year fiscal plan tabled as part of the budget on January 30, 2018.  - Liberal Party promise-cost disclosure form

Liberal Leader Brian Gallant has been declining to offer prices on any promises in real time as they are announced, instead directing reporters to the party's Elections New Brunswick, filings which are publicly released 24 to 48 hours later . 

But in many cases those filings eventually list no costs at all, even after large announcements.

Over the last two weeks, the Liberal Party has said if re-elected it will dedicate one percent of all public infrastructure spending to arts and culture projects; double provincial spending on energy efficiency projects; install infrastructure to teach trade skills at every high school in the province, and eliminate interest on student loans to provincial residents, all multi million dollar proposals

At the student loan announcement, Gallant was asked what forgiving interest would cost but he declined to answer, instead directing reporters to check with Elections NB the following day.

$0 covers Liberal student loan promise

Costing, like every part of our plan, will be completely unveiled when we submit to Elections New Brunswick," said Gallant.

But when Elections NB eventually released the party's filing, the prices of the student loan promise and the other three promises were listed as $0 in each case.

"An estimate of the financial implications of the election commitment has not been prepared because the election commitment will not have financial implications for the province," reads each disclosure form. 

The Liberal Party eventually acknowledged the price of forgiving student loan interest would be $12 million per year, but that appears nowhere on its forms with Elections NB.

Everything costed, Gallant says


Still on Tuesday, Gallant took issue with any suggestion his party has been hiding the cost of any promises

"Everything that we have committed to in our plan is costed and that costing is made public," said Gallant at an event announcing child care funding in Saint John, where he declined to give any information on the cost of that promise.

"Why not cost it out in front of us now?" one reporter asked.

"I understand from media, I completely get it you would like to have it at the same announcement," replied Gallant.

"But obviously once we make the commitment, we want to then follow the process laid out in the legislation through Elections New Brunswick, which ultimately has the costing made public in a very short time period.  We have chosen to do that with every platform commitment, and that's what we'll do moving forward as well."


Brian Chisholm/CBC

One reason Liberals consistently give on their forms for not providing costs is that they have adopted multi-year budgeting in government and have already set aside money in that process to pay for what they are proposing.

During last January's budget speech, Finance Minister Cathy Rogers projected government spending next year will grow by $258 million and the party has been pointing to that as including amounts to pay for promises.

An expensive Liberal promise made in late August to create 1,000 new nursing home and Alzheimer's spaces in New Brunswick by 2023 is one of several promises Liberals costed at $0 for that reason.

"It was fully accounted for in the multi-year fiscal plan tabled as part of the budget on January 30, 2018," reads the disclosure form on file with Elections NB.

Can't estimate

Progressive Conservatives have mostly claimed they can't find reliable numbers to price their promises, including major commitments to increase wage rates for home-care workers or eliminating provincial property taxes on apartment buildings, even though rough numbers are available.

The Green Party included a $5 an hour increase for home-care workers in its platform, like the PCs, and costed it at $75 million a year once fully implemented based on New Brunswick Finance department figures.

The Green Party has put prices on more promises than any other party — 23 so far — but that's still a minority of its 50 promises.

Coon acknowledged difficulty in accessing reliable numbers on everything his party plans but feels the larger parties are not making a real effort.

"I don't think they're being genuine," said Coon.

"There's legislation we're supposed to comply with and the intent of it is to ensure to the best of ability that parties cost their platforms." 

Elections NB lists the NDP as costing four of its eight promises, the People's Alliance six of 13 and the KISS party one of two.