Mr. Speaker, I want to begin by thanking the Minister of Finance for her budget address last week. I also want to thank all of my colleagues for their dedication and hard work over the last year. We executed a model response to a pandemic, and, with vaccines well distributed, relief is in sight. Our Cabinet and public servants can hold their heads high in our response to COVID-19.
Mr. Speaker, it's hard to disagree with much of the new-initiative spending in this budget: $1.7 million for a small business tax cut which brings us in line with other jurisdictions and is most certainly needed for our small businesses these days; $7 million for Child and Family Services, long overdue money for that system; 27 new counsellor positions and a travelling mental-health team for our public schools; additional funding to expand our healthcare systems capacity. These are all much-needed supports and will directly assist the residents of this territory. A few initiatives, I could probably live without, but, all around, the new spending aligns well with the mandate of this government.
However, my job is not to stand here and sing Cabinet's praises. My job is to hold them to account for the change they promised in taking their positions. We cannot lose sight that this budget is a moral document. Each dollar spent is a choice, $2 million, each weighed against the other, $45,000 for every person in this territory, we are entrusted to spend, one of the highest per-capita spendings of any government on the planet, Mr. Speaker. There are no easy decisions in allocating this money. There is no easy metric to value nurses over teachers over road-builders, but we must conduct that hard work.
In our system, we don't vote on parties, we don't vote on platforms, we don't vote on the mandates or the workings of departments. That power lies with our Premier and executive Cabinet. However, we do vote on budgets. We do not necessarily have confidence votes in a consensus government, but deciding whether to approve the budget as presented by this Cabinet is about as close as we get to one. Before this fiscal year end, I must vote yes or no to this budget, a cruel simplicity.
Mr. Speaker, I believe it is easy to find money when a clear vision is put forward. When cuts are made for a clear vision for funding other priorities, then we can put together and accomplish what we set out for the people of the Northwest Territories. I do not believe this budget looked into the core spending and the base spending of departments hard enough. A year and a half ago, when Caroline Cochrane make her bid to become Premier, she stated, "Our economy is in trouble," and pledged a 10-year plan to turn the NWT's economic fortunes around; "we need to act fast, and we need to act now." I could not agree more, but I have still not seen that 10-year plan. I still have not seen an "emerge stronger" plan. Apparently she and I have a different interpretation of "fast."
Additionally, we were promised during her "bid for Premier" speech that we would rename the Department of Industry, Tourism and Investment the "Department of Economic Diversification and Development." We were told the territory's environment ministry would become the "Department of Environment and Climate Change." Mr. Speaker, name changes signal a new mandate and a new direction for those departments. We were told the Department of Lands and the Department of Municipal and Community Affairs would be amalgamated. This budget does none of those things, another broken promise of change.
I am in daily fights with lands, who then point to MACA, who then point to ENR. I actually believe the silos have gotten worse under this Cabinet. I will not be voting for this budget unless the Premier lives up to her promises. I want to see the plan for corporate restructuring that we were promised. I want to see the economic plan that we were promised.
As an added benefit, every time you get rid of a department, we save a few million dollars in duplication, and the GNWT is presently a top-heavy organization, with many managers with not enough staff to actually manage. I believe we must take a look at our management-to-staff ratio for some further cost savings.
Despite my frustration, I believe there is a path for a vision forward. I believe we need to revisit our priorities and mandate and truly come to a consensus. Finding consensus is difficult, but I believe this Assembly has a clear agreement that housing is a priority and has a true willingness to address our housing prices. When I ran to be an MLA, I have to admit housing was not my number one priority, but, in listening to my colleagues and listening to the struggles of the people of the NWT, I believe we need to do more for housing. In fact, we have a Premier who spent her entire life trying to advocate for housing, as she often says. I believe this is the appropriate legacy for this Assembly, so maybe we can actually invest the amount of money it needs. If we are ambitious, I believe we can cut our housing wait list in half in the life of this Assembly, not simply settle with 25 units a year.
During the course of this pandemic, a spark emerged, the notion that we could truly operate differently as a government. We moved thousands of civil servants home, and changes were made in days rather than months. We passed more regulatory changes in a year than I expected us to do in an entire Assembly. We have seen what a motivated civil service can do under strong leadership, and I was inspired that we might see that change into the future of this Assembly. Yet, Mr. Speaker, we are dialling back that promise. When we pass this budget, some 2,000 low-wage workers will have their wages cut from $18 an hour to an unjustifiable $13.46 in cases, with no increases to the minimum wage in sight because apparently those works are no longer essential.
During COVID-19, we begged childcare operators to remain open so our essential workers could continue to work. We subsidized their costs. We saw how childcare was essential to keeping the economy open. Yet, this budget comes nowhere close to addressing the childcare needs in this territory, which are only getting more expensive, let alone implementing a universal daycare. We have added $500,000 to our childcare infrastructure, but that is a drop in the bucket compared to the $20 million we need a year to truly support the children of the NWT.
In addition, this government has doubled down on its love of P3 contracting. Despite knowing we can't afford much of the infrastructure, we are pretending we are actually going to build. A program can always be cut, but a 30-year P3 contract binds the next generation of Northerners. It is undemocratic financing at best and determination to bankrupt our budget at worst.
Mr. Speaker, our current infrastructure is crumbling, and our goal seems to be to let it collapse while we build more. Our deferred maintenance budget is out of sync with reality. Not to mention, our municipalities infrastructure is in the same state. I would gladly pour more money into maintaining what we already have as opposed to continuing to pretend that we can afford to build more.
This government needs to come back and ask that our priorities and mandate be assessed in light of the largest global event of many of our lifetimes. The sad reality is that we can't afford the big three infrastructure projects. We probably can't even afford one of them. I honestly wish we could afford them all, but let's pick one and actually get it done. The Mackenzie Valley Highway makes the most sense to me, considering we build it every year, and then it melts.
During COVID, our Cabinet was given a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. They were given a full pass to reform the GNWT, to change how it operates, how it is funded, and leave a truly nimble public service, but much of that opportunity has gone to waste. We moved our public service to remote work in weeks. Instead of capitalizing on that and creating a proper work-from-home policy, we called them back at the first sign of criticism. I may also add that remote work means lower leasing, office, and travel costs in our budget. As well, it is proven to improve productivity. It's a no-brainer, Mr. Speaker.
Instead of addressing the fact that a person is just as capable of not working from home as they are from an office, we kept the same measurement of productivity in our public service: hours in a chair. We have not seized the opportunity to switch our public service to a results-based workplace instead of one measured purely by time in an office.
Mr. Speaker, the core budget of the GNWT, which we have failed to really delve into and change, is one that has been designed by committee over consecutive Assemblies, where too many competing interests and mandate items have often led to the safest bet: not moving too strongly in any direction.
We are trying to be leaders in climate change while also pushing for offshore development of Arctic reserves. I believe at one point we had more people working in the GNWT regulating oil and gas than were actually producing it in the Northwest Territories. With the exception of Norman Wells, we are more likely to take on liabilities in both Cameron Hills and the Beaufort-Delta from oil and gas than we are to make any money off of it. Not to mention, all major Canadian banks are rapidly divesting oil and gas from their portfolios and have refused to fund other Arctic drilling projects.
We have made no progress on the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People. We don't even have a terms of reference or a working group yet. My dream is one day I will see a budget where half of the money is missing because we gave it all away, and half of the power is gone because we legislated it to the Indigenous governments to whom it rightly belongs.
We have no significant legislation this sitting. Nothing. We are going to sit here for two months as legislators and not pass legislation because no department over there can think of anything they want to do.
We can't afford many of the things that this Assembly wants without giving others up. If we are going to make cuts, we need to buy ourselves some political capital first, and I think a good place to get that political capital is to reduce the generous ratio of all of our pension plans. For some reason, I get a pretty good pension if I do this for eight years, a pension it would take many in the public service 25 years to earn. This isn't short-term servings, but, in the long term, an adjustment saves millions.
Additionally, top pay for a deputy minister is $268,000 plus bonuses. I don't think we can continue to justify the long march to paying all of our DMs at the highest rate. I propose capping it at $250,000, conducting a public review of all of the bonuses senior management make, and starting all new deputy ministers at the first pay level, of which none are currently at.
Next, I believe we need to drive a harder bargain at the negotiating table. I don't believe our two-tiered system of medical travel benefits are warranted, where GNWT workers get full per diems for medical travel and the rest of the citizens get a lesser service. I believe the GNWT can cut its travel budget in half. The next year, we should be limiting all travel internationally and out of territory. We should be switching to an online model of meetings. COVID has already done this for us. Let's keep it up. Maybe we can actually cut the number of meetings in half in government, as I am confident many of those meetings actually could have been an email.
Next, Mr. Speaker, I believe we need to create a high-income tax bracket. Our current tax bracket stops at $142,000, meaning someone who makes $142,000 is paying the same rate as that deputy minister making $268,000 plus bonuses. There is room for one or even two high-income tax brackets.
I also believe that we can identify numerous jobs that can be replaced or combined. I believe a reasonable target in this area is 100 positions. I will note that that is less than the amount this current budget is adding permanently. In the context of this budget, this would still be a net gain of public service jobs. As a place to start, I am convinced that, by adopting a Service GNWT model, government service officers, Income Assistance officers, housing officers, and many other positions can be moved into one single position to eliminate duplication. We may need to actually simplify the applications and rules to make that work. Perhaps payroll more people, or even a basic income model. I have a dream of, one day, a single form for such services on an online portal, but that's just me being radical.
Our work on e-services is not adequately funded nor ambitious. When we bring more services online, we create a more user-friendly government and reduce the overall labour needs of our GNWT. As an example, as we bring most of the DMV services online, I hope to see a change in the amount of labour that office needs. Let's get the rest of our services online and adjust staffing needs accordingly.
Not to mention, a cultural change is long overdue to actually empower our frontline workers to make changes without running up and down a bottlenecked bureaucratic ladder. We need to empower our frontline staff to actually make decisions. As we free up time in passing up and down decisions, we free up more labour.
We have a GNWT operating on an HR manual from 1980, an obsession with hierarchy. The days of running a public service where a manager can actually use the word "insubordination" with a straight face are long gone, but instead, we have a series of people fighting over power while pushing paper. We are nowhere near to delivering the change that is required with our outdated bureaucratic model.
Mr. Speaker, I tried to speak of a number of ways I believe we can find efficiencies in this budget. This is not to just find efficiencies for efficiency's sake, because the reality of our fiscal situation is that we will need to find them, but I also believe that, if we work to find cuts, with a clear vision for housing, we can actually make progress on this issue, which I believe is shared by all Members.
I believe we have been pulled in too many directions at once. I propose a new direction, one where housing is first, one where we make the tough decisions in pursuit of housing. Housing is a win for everyone. It saves us money in Health when people are housed. It saves us Justice costs when people are housed. It helps students succeed, and it breaks cycles of poverty. It employs northern contractors, and it can fuel a building industry that creates more tradespeople. It can spur a whole economy based on trades and building.
I am proposing that this Assembly readjust its priorities, its budget, and its mandate to make the tough decisions we need and come back with a new and powerful vision for housing. Thank you, Mr. Speaker.