'Get out of the way': Party leaders say Gallant needed to step back during ice storm

New Brunswick's Progressive Conservative and Green Party leaders aren't surprised by a new report's suggestion of political interference in the response to the January ice storm.

Role of politicians in a crisis should be well defined so they don't interfere with the experts, leaders say

About 133,000 homes and businesses lost power at the peak of the January ice storm, and two people died from carbon monoxide poisoning. (CBC)

Political leaders needed to stand back during the January ice storm on the Acadian Peninsula and let emergency officials do their work, say the leaders of New Brunswick's Progressive Conservative and Green parties.

"An event like this, which should be all hands on deck to get the job done, is seen as a political photo [opportunity] by many … it's unfortunate," said PC Leader Blaine Higgs.

A report on the ice storm says Premier Brian Gallant delivered "very effective media conferences" during the emergency response.

But the same independent review done for the Emergency Measures Organization also noted that preparations for the premier's news conferences caused all kinds of problems behind the scenes. 

In his review, consultant Jim Bruce said EMO officials were helping the premier's staff write his speeches, when their job was to provide updates to keep the public safe.

"These questions diverted emergency managers from priority tasks," said the report. "This caused a great deal of churn and forced people to work at cross purposes."

The ice storm toppled trees and power poles on the Acadian Peninsula and left many without power, some for up to 11 days. About 133,000 homes and businesses lost electricity, and two people died from carbon monoxide poisoning.

Higgs and Green Party Leader David Coon said they weren't surprised that the EMO analysis suggested some political interference during the crisis. 

You don't want politicians involved in fighting forest fires or evacuating hospitals or dealing with any crisis.- David Coon, Green Party leader

Higgs said politicians should avoid pretending to be "an emergency response co-ordinator" if they've never been in that type of situation.

Instead, they should focus on helping out in specific areas, when asked by emergency officials in charge.  

Although Higgs said it's important EMO reports to the premier, so he can be aware of what's going on, the premier can't be in charge of the situation.

New Brunswick Opposition Leader Blaine Higgs says the role of the premier during a crisis such as a devastating ice storm should be clearly defined. (CBC News)

"Let the people that know this best, take ownership for the actions, let the politicians stand back and be part of removing road blocks … get out of the way and let the job get done," he said.

Premier's role in crisis

Both Higgs and Coon agreed a politician's role in a crisis should be clearly defined and it shouldn't involve things that EMO officials can do better.

"You don't want politicians involved in fighting forest fires or evacuating hospitals or dealing with any crisis," Coon said.

"You want the leader of the province to be present — be there to reassure people and ensure the way is clear for the experts and professionals to do their job effectively."  

Premier Brian Gallant held news conferences on storm recovery efforts last winter. (CBC)

Coon said it was important Gallant was present during the ice storm to provide reassurance and ensure that if additional resources were needed, he would be readily accessible for certain decisions, such asking for military assistance.

"You're not the one to provide the briefings on what's going on," said Coon, using the example of EMO staff talking to media about flooding in Charlotte County.

"There needs to be clear lines and there should be clear lines, and it's the premier's responsibility to lay those lines down for his staff, for his cabinet members, for his MLAs and for himself."

Government action

With the crisis events becoming more frequent, Higgs said that in the future, government needs to take responsibility for the recommendations in the ice storm reports, ensuring they're followed and with a timeline.  

"Someone in government should be saying, 'I'm going to work with every group to ensure these recommendations are checked out, put in place … and we have it done," he said.  

David Coon, leader of the Green Party, says it's important the premier be on scene during a crisis so he can easily reached when important decisions are needed, such as whether to ask for military assistance. (CBC News)

The role of government also needs to be addressed in a time of crisis, Higgs said.

"If they [MLAs] become a volunteer than they too can be trained in a specific aspect of what they're going to do," he said. "But they're not the leader … they are a complementary member … especially the premier and people representing the riding."

CBC News tried to talk to Minister of Justice and Public Safety Denis Landry but his office said he was not available.

With files from Information Morning Fredericton


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