The Gallant government says special consultations for Liberal Party members don't amount to insider influence on which tough choices will end up in the next provincial budget.
At the same time Liberal ministers and government officials are embarking on a series of 10 public consultations, Premier Brian Gallant is attending five separate meetings that the party is billing as "exclusively" for card-carrying Liberal members.
The party website tells members the "special forum" will "bring you inside" the Strategic Program Review process with "key information" and let them provide "constructive feedback."
The review is designed to choose from about $1 billion in proposed spending cuts and tax increases, designed to find a total of $500-600 million in savings.
Options include cutting teacher positions, closing some hospitals, raising the Harmonized Sales Tax, and imposing highway tolls. The provincial budget will be tabled on Feb. 2.
Cabinet minister Victor Boudreau, who is overseeing the review, says Liberal members won't get any extra influence on the decisions.
"There's no question," he said. The public sessions "are the ones that are being documented."
Input from Liberals "is not necessarily being catalogued and assembled like it is with the public," he said. "It's more to give them an update."
The Liberals have been holding such forums for two years as a way of letting grassroots party members know what the the party MLAs, first in opposition and now in government, have been up to.
After the Liberals lost the 2010 election, party members adopted new rules designed to give ordinary members more input. Many card-carrying Liberals had complained that they were not aware of major, unpopular Graham government initiatives, such as the attempt to sell NB Power.
Review just one item on agenda
Boudreau wouldn't say if the forums were organized to counter that. But he said it's important for Gallant as party leader "to get feedback from the members, to give them an opportunity to be engaged and to be heard."
The minister says the program review is "one of several items on the agenda" at the five Liberal insider meetings, along with introducing the party's new executive director and its newly elected federal MPs.
But the party website bills them as "SPR forums" with no mention of other subjects.
'This is the most significant budget we're going to face in this government's mandate, and this is just part of the Liberal culture of insider favouritism.' - Brian Macdonald, Tory MLA
Opposition Progressive Conservative MLA Brian Macdonald says the wording sends a message about power and influence.
"This is the most significant budget we're going to face in this government's mandate, and this is just part of the Liberal culture of insider favouritism."
Macdonald says he agrees with Boudreau about one thing: the private Liberal sessions won't influence the budget.
But that's because he believes the Liberals have already decided to raise the HST and the public sessions are being held to create the appearance of consultation.
"I don't think there's going to be a substantive change from any of these meetings, public or private. It's a sham. But what they're trying to communicate [with the party-exclusive sessions] is: if you're a Liberal, you get insider treatment."