Paying More and Knowing Less
Increasingly the work of our provincial government is being hidden from the Legislative Assembly and the people those assembled represent. Why the secrecy? Why keep New Brunswickers from knowing what their leaders are doing.
The author John Steinbeck once wrote, “Power does not corrupt. Fear corrupts, perhaps the fear of a loss of power.”
It seems as if governments spend much of their time figuring out how to hold onto power, rather than governing. As a result, we get decisions like the one that puts politics before public health. Over 70 percent of the Medical Officer of Health’s staff is being transferred to other departments, leaving Liberal MLAs having to defend the indefensible.
To guard against corruption in government, our constitution, made the supremacy of parliament as one of its cornerstones. It is the Legislature which had the sovereign authority to make laws, and is supposed to be supreme over all government institutions including the Premier and cabinet.
The problem is that for years, Premiers and their cabinets in New Brunswick have seen themselves as having sovereign authority over the making of laws, holding supremacy over the Legislative Assembly. While this facilitates the wielding of power, it has left our democracy in cardiac arrest.
An entire generation has grown up with the mistaken notion that the Premier and his cabinet reign supreme, not the people’s house of representatives – our legislature.
It was reported recently in the media that the Chair of the government’s caucus, said he didn’t think it serves the public any good to hear what a government MLA agrees with or doesn’t agree with on the floor of the Legislature. He insisted that once bills have been tabled in the Legislature, they actually are good to go. This is before they have been debated, before they have been examined clause-by-clause at committee, before the public has had a chance to comment, and before possible amendments have been considered.
On the Official Opposition side, a member who had served previously in a Tory cabinet was quoted in the media as saying debates about proposed legislation are best kept behind the closed doors of the government’s caucus room.So much for parliamentary supremacy.
The idea that the Premier and cabinet reign supreme has run amok. This has undermined New Brunswicker’s right to information.
It was Premier Richard Hatfield who introduced New Brunswick’s first Right to Information Act, developed under the tutelage of former Deputy Minister of Justice, Gordon Gregory. Hatfield, said the business of government is the business of the people
However, more and more of people’s business is being conducted out reach of the Legislature, invisible to the public. Think of the numbered company the Liberals created, 698202 NB Inc, which struck the marijuana deal with the cannabis companies. Or the Crown timber deal the Tories signed with JD Irving. Or the management of public services by private interests.
The management of public pensions and their investments has been privatized. The management of our ambulance service is private. The management of our extra-mural hospital program is being privatized. The food and cleaning services in our hospitals are about to be privatized. Tax assessments are soon to be taken away from government. And the provision of nursing homes has been privatized.
It seems to be a case of paying more but knowing less.
If we don’t have the right to know what is happening with public finances, we don’t have responsible government.
Medavie Health Services subsidiary, NB EMS, which manages Ambulance New Brunswick, and soon will take over our Extra-Mural Hospital, refused to provide the Standing Committee on Crown Corporations with their financial statements, as they do not provide them to the Board of Ambulance New Brunswick, a Crown Corporation. We are talking about a billion dollars over the last ten years that was transferred to NB EMS, the subsidiary of Medavie Health Services, to run our ambulances, and we are unable to see Medavie’s financial statements.
I sought copies of the un-redacted contracts for the private-public nursing homes, which the Right to Information Commissioner recommended the Department of Social Development provide me, following her extensive investigation. However, the Department rejected that recommendation after seeking private legal advice from Stewart McKelvey, and is using that to deny public access. Imagine spending public money on lawyers to shut down the right to public information.
Both the Public Accounts Committee’s questions and my RTI request for details on the Department of Transportation and Infrastructure’s lease with Irving Oil’s property company for the new New Brunswick Tourism visitor welcome centre near the Canada-US Border in St. Stephen were rejected. The rent is secret, the square footage of what we rented is secret, the terms of the lease are secret, and the conditions for terminating the lease are secret. The fear of losing power or the obsession with holding onto it, has governments circling the wagons so the citizens cannot readily see the political calculations, the deal-making, the cronyism and the patronage that goes on.
It’s time to lift the curtain on all of this by applying a shock to our democratic system, with the election of the first minority government in 100 years. What a centennial that will be.
David Coon is the leader of the Green Party of New Brunswick and the MLA for Fredericton-South.