Internal details of Liberal government’s strategic program review revealed
“It became more about managing issues politically rather than making decisions in the public interest and common good” – David Coon
FREDERICTON • While consultations with New Brunswickers were still ongoing, officials heading the Liberal government’s strategic program review were already well down the road to defining the “choices” to tackle the provincial deficit as either a sales tax hike or cuts to education and health.
Documents obtained by the Telegraph-Journal show the government’s program review messaging went through several revisions.
The Liberal government narrowed the theme of its ads to “highlight the explicit choice between HST, health care and education” as the Feb. 2 budget loomed – but before public consultations were complete.
The government also commissioned focus groups to react to what New Brunswickers told them during public consultations.
The documents raise questions as to whether the real decisions were being defined behind the scenes.
New Brunswickers voiced skepticism at strategic program review consultation stops that fell just weeks before the February budget. The Progressive Conservatives had said the review process was just a pretext to raise taxes, with Opposition leader Bruce Fitch calling the process a “facade.”
The documents also reveal that the cost of the Liberal government’s strategic program review is more than $540,000 and counting – with thousands of dollars yet to be figured into the final cost of asking New Brunswickers how to cut spending or find savings.
The Liberal government announced in its 2016-17 budget the end of its strategic program review process that ended up identifying measures to improve the province’s bottom line by $589 million, including a two per cent HST hike, among other moves.
The $540,000 figure includes more than $360,000 in marketing and a public awareness campaign of radio, television and print ads.
Emails disclosed to the Telegraph-Journal show that the Moncton-based marketing company m5 was contracted in October 2015 to begin producing a series of advertising spots specifically for the strategic program review exercise.
The m5 firm has been paid $165,317 to date.
Another $180,905 was spent on airing the ad spots and about $14,242 in printing costs were also racked up.
Roughly $184,000 was then spent on a first 14-stop provincial public consultation tour in 2015.
That figure includes venue rentals, hotels for staff and a series of other expenses including food.
The cost of a subsequent 2016 10-stop tour is not yet fully available – government disclosing that only about $18,000 has been paid out to date, predominantly for translation.
Other invoices are still pending.
The Telegraph-Journal also requested all records kept by government in developing its program review marketing campaign, including emails that detail correspondence between government official and its hired marketing company.
Email disclosed by government show how details of the review evolved.
The government’s “Choices Report” – a grocery list of options to find upwards of $500 million in new revenue and cuts said to be drawn from ideas brought forward by New Brunswickers in through the 2015 consultation process – originally had a different name.
It was originally the “Options Report,” but government emails inform m5 to change the name.
The marketing company also made suggestions that a “New Brunswick female voice, late 30s, early 40s” would work best to confidently deliver “hard facts” to the public.
The emails then detail how the government wanted several different advertisements in the lead up to the February budget.
The first print, radio and online ads released in early January aimed to frame the “hard facts” facing the province and the need to find $500 million in new revenues and cuts.
But that changed just before a consultation tour began in mid-January that was to allow New Brunswickers to provide their input on the Choices document.
“We require a script to frame and highlight the explicit choice between HST, health care and education,” said Executive Council Office corporate communications staff Christina Winsor in an email in Jan. 6.
Winsor headed the development of the program review marketing campaign.
Similar print ads were to be made.
Just a day prior, Health Minister Victor Boudreau, the minister also responsible for the government’s strategic program review, said in a statement that “no decisions have been made.”
The public consultation on the choices New Brunswickers were to decide from didn’t begin until Jan. 11.
The tour didn’t conclude until Jan. 21.
Entering those meetings, Finance Minister Roger Melanson said that “there is always an opportunity to make changes before we present the budget.”
Early versions of the marketing campaign also wanted to highlight a three-step process.
At first, it was to be: Step 1 – repair finances, Step 2 – reinvest in priorities, Step 3 – restore hope.
But that wasn’t what was eventually made public.
The government’s gnb.ca/spr website has videos that outline the steps as “Step 1 – repair finances, Step 2 – restore confidence, Step 3 – reinvesting in helping families.”
“Hope” was cut.
The Choices document doesn’t include the word “hope” either.
Still, Finance Minister Roger Melanson concluded his budget speech in February by stating the Liberal government is “following Nelson Mandela’s advice in ensuring our choices reflect our hopes, not our fears.”
The Liberal government also hired Gandalf Group to hold focus groups, seemingly to react to what New Brunswickers told them during the 2015 public consultation.
The government released a “What Was Said” report in March 2015 that summarized the input received during the program review tour earlier that year.
The Liberal government then put out a call on Sept. 10, 2015, requesting the services of a research firm to conduct four focus groups – two English and two French – on the options “presented by the public” during the its strategic program review.
Seven specific initiatives were to be tested.
Those were either blacked out or not provided as part of the Telegraph-Journal’s request for information.
“The executive council office needs to understand the opinions and attitudes of New Brunswickers relating to the changes being implemented as part of the strategic program review,” reads a “statement of work” request.
“The results will help inform the policy decisions of the provincial government by giving an indication of the degree of interest and impact of specific policy options.
“The focus groups should also help to identify and clarify concerns with seven specific initiatives and seek ideas on how concerns could be mitigated.”
Government wanted the findings by Sept. 30, 2015, and set aside up to $20,000 to pay for the focus groups.
It’s unclear if or how those findings played a role in forming the Choices report.
A request to speak with a Liberal government minister was denied.
Government spokesman Bruce Macfarlane said Victor Boudreau, the minister responsible for the government’s strategic program review, is currently on vacation.
Macfarlane instead defended the strategic program review process stating, it “yielded expenditure reduction and revenue measures which will improve the province’s financial situation by $589 million.”
“The strategic program review was one of the largest engagement exercises undertaken in this province with thousands of New Brunswickers taking part,” Macfarlane said. “New Brunswickers were asked for their input on measures which would have a lasting impact on our province’s future.
“People deserved to know about the challenges that the province faces and the choices that were being considered. The objective of this campaign was to raise awareness and start a conversation about how to address our financial challenges together.”
Green party Leader David Coon said on Thursday that he was originally behind the Liberal government’s plan to consult New Brunswickers, but that things went awry at the conclusion of the 2015 round of public consultations.
Coon said decisions weren’t made, the public’s opinions not listened to.
“Clearly, things went very political,” Coon said. “That’s where they lost me.
“It became more about managing issues politically rather than making decisions in the public interest and common good.”
He said the documents released through an information request back that up.
“There isn’t a better example than hiring the Gandalf Group, which is a well-known Liberal firm led by David Herle who is famous as a Liberal strategist in Canada.”
Herle was most recently the managing co-chair for Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne’s successful re-election campaign in 2014.
“Holding focus groups to see how people react to what they heard from New Brunswickers? That’s just straight out politicizing the whole process with an eye to minimize the political fallout from whatever decisions they took in regards to the budget.”
Despite repeatedly criticizing the entire review process as simply a means to an HST hike, the Progressive Conservatives refused to provide comment on the newly revealed details.
“The premier and his entire cabinet have taken the unprecedented step of hiding behind departmental spokespersons after saying they wanted to get out of the House so they could spend more time discussing issues with the public,” said Bruce Fitch in an emailed statement from spokesman Bob Fowlie. “This is a disservice to the taxpayers and to consumers of media in our province.”