Last year, the Premier, or someone in the Premier’s office acting on his behalf, told Service New Brunswick, presumably through their CEO, that he wanted the new property assessment system up and running in 18 months, not the three years that had been planned for its roll-out. When journalists asked the Premier during a scrum whether someone in his office or the Minister had been involved in the talks to fast track the roll-out of the new computer-based property assessment system, he said it may be the case, he wasn’t aware.
One would expect that his Minister responsible for the new property assessment system, Ed Doherty, would have provided a progress report at a cabinet meeting, so the Premier should have been aware, but he is not speaking. The Minister has been gagged since problematic tax bills first landed in people’s mailboxes. He wouldn’t answer questions in the Legislature. He gave not one interview on the issue, and at the news conference where he apologized for the mess, journalists were told not to ask him any questions. So much for ministerial responsibility, one of the pillars of our Westminster system of democracy.
According to an internal document updating Service New Brunswick staff on the roll out of the new property tax system last June, the Premier requested the CEO for the Crown Corporation to accelerate its implementation. This contradicts the Premier’s contention that while his staff may have been involved in such discussions, he wasn’t aware of it.
We do know the Premier’s Chief of Staff, Jordan O’Brien, was directly involved in conversations about the new property assessment system with the CEO for Service New Brunswick, because he took the unprecedented step of releasing a string of emails to the media that they had exchanged. The content reveals that decision-making has been extremely centralized in the Office of the Premier. The property tax fiasco is a direct consequence of this.
Political staffers in the Premier’s office are not publicly accountable like elected representatives. That’s the point of ministerial responsibility. The buck is supposed to stop on the Minister’s desk. Cabinet ministers are to bear the ultimate responsibility for the actions of their departments, even if they have no knowledge of the actions. If the elected official holding a cabinet post is not responsible for the actions of his department, then public accountability evaporates. Too many cabinet ministers have been sidelined by directives issued straight from the Premier’s office to their Deputy Minister, or CEO in the case of Service New Brunswick.
Civil servants at Service New Brunswick understood what they were being told to do was coming from the Premier, so that when the new property assessment system began to turn up overinflated results, someone panicked. Instead of hitting reset and reverting to the previous year’s assessments, they cut the outlandish assessments generated by their computers down to a manageable size and then trumped up renovations to account for them, which in turn spewed out big jumps in property taxes for more than 2,000 property owners. These were the so-called mistakes the Premier keeps talking about.
Two weeks ago I called for a public inquiry to be led by a respected judge to get to the bottom of what happened. The Premier has announced a review will be undertaken by retired judge Joseph Robertson, now a faculty member of the UNB Law School. This is not the same thing. While former Justice Robertson is the kind of respected jurist I had in mind, he needs to head up a very public inquiry, not a quiet review. His inquiry needs to take place in public and be constituted under the Inquiries Act so he has the legal power to subpoena witnesses and documents. The Premier must testify; the Minister responsible must testify, along with civil servants. The report must be presented to the Legislative Assembly. This is the only way to get at the truth.
Premiers have traditionally been described as ‘the first among equals’ where he or she is the chair of the Cabinet rather than occupying an office that is superior to the Ministers. Over time, under both Liberal and Tory governments, this tenet of our democratic system has crumbled, with power concentrated in the Office of the Premier. Rather than being the primary minister, the Premier has taken on executive powers that were never intended to be his sole domain.
Both Liberals and Tories seem content with this devolution in our democracy. It is the antithesis of the way Greens would approach this, which is to decentralize power and decision-making away from the Office of the Premier.