The Alward government hasn't done enough to engage the public in discussion about major changes to the province's Crown lands forestry policy and risks a political fate similar to the government it defeated, says a professor with expertise in public involvement in forest management.
Tom Beckley, a sociologist and professor in the Forestry and Environment faculty at the University of New Brunswick, says there has been a "democratic deficit" before the government announced last month it will allow a 21 per cent increase in the annual allowable cut of softwood from Crown land.
"There has been almost no public engagement for the past two years, since this basic turnaround occurred within the present government," said Beckley.
In March 2012, the Alward government set Crown land policy that protected about 28 per cent of the public forest from industrial logging operations. Two years later, a new policy was rolled out that reduced the area that was off limits to forest operations to 23 per cent of Crown land in order to achieve the higher harvest.
Beckley said the provincial government hasn't had "a real honest and sincere check-in with the public" about forest policy since 2007.
Public consultation is not a requirement under the Crown Lands and Forest Act, noted Beckley in an interview on CBC's Information Morning in Fredericton.
"There's some vague language in there about how the public ought to be dealt with," he said. "I think that's unfortunate.
'I think they are obligated just due to the fact they are negotiating the fate of a public resource on our behalf, but really without our consent.' - Tom Beckley, UNB professor of Forestry and Environment
"I think they are obligated just due to the fact they are negotiating the fate of a public resource on our behalf, but really without our consent," said Beckley. "I think there should be more frequent check-ins."
Beckley said the government's typical method of consultation is to publish a report online and ask people to comment online. He questions the effectiveness of that given the province's low literacy rates, the capacity of people to digest technical documents and the limited computer skills of some people.
"It's just not a realistic expectation that you are going to get quality and well-rounded input from all segments of society through that tool," he said.
Beckley acknowledged that the government will never please all parties in a policy decision affecting as many interests as the forestry policy.
"Everybody is not going to come away happy from a decision," he said. "But I just think it's a basic principle of accountability for government to provide opportunities for people to [provide input] in an open forum."
Beckley likens the current situation to 2009, when the Alward Progressive Conservatives defeated the sitting government after Shawn Graham's Liberals made an aborted attempt to see NB Power to Hydro-Québec in a policy decision that came without any public consultation.
"That government was brought down, I think largely because of the NB Power and the lack of consultation there," said Beckley.
"The new government came in with a big story about consultation, but between the shale gas file and now forestry and the kind of reticence to provide opportunities for public engagement again, I think we may see a change of government again," he said.