"Engagement" vs. consultation

February 26, 2010 12:03 PM

The Liberals have rolled out their "engagement" process on the NB Power deal, and it's worth noting that they're at least not calling it a consultation.

The government will table the full text of the agreement with Quebec on March 31, and will introduce legislation to enact the deal at the same time. There'll be 50 hours, roughly two weeks, of public hearings in Fredericton, with the aim of passing the legislation and closing the deal by May 21. But while New Brunswickers will get to "express their views and get answers to their questions," according to Government House leader Greg Byrne, "the agreement is a final agreement and we do not anticipate we will be making changes to that agreement." That's a one-way process: explain the deal to the voters without the voters getting to influence the deal.

The Liberals actually have shown the ability to run a truly consultative process. Take a look at the poverty reduction process, a great, organic example of what political engagement can be. Even the tax reform consultation, though considerably less granola, still saw the government put a range of options out there and listen to New Brunswickers before coming up with their decision.

The NB Power deal was different. But imagine if the government had started a public process in early 2009, talking frankly about the utility's debt and the looming capital investments needed at Mactaquac and elsewhere. Imagine if they'd presented a deal with Hydro-Qu├ębec as one of a range of options to be presented to the public by a travelling committee of MLAs. Maybe they'd have been more successful in persuading New Brunswickers.

Instead, the government has been forced into delaying its deal by nearly two months to allow for a full debate that will not affect the agreement itself one iota. As a consequence, they'll have a much shorter time between the signing of the deal and the election to convince New Brunswickers to accept, or forget, their decision. Yes, their process will be a remarkable spectacle, a full, public airing of all the grievances relating to the agreement, but with no impact on the outcome.

That may be bold leadership, and it may be absolutely necessary, but it's not true consultation.

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