ONB won't make job creation numbers public, says CEO

The head of Opportunities New Brunswick says the provincial job-creation agency will not require companies to allow their employment numbers to become public in return for receiving money from taxpayers.

70% of companies polled don't want numbers released

Chief financial officer Paul Fudge, left, and chief executive officer Stephen Lund pof Opportunities New Brunswick respond to the auditor general's report on Atcon last fall. (Jacques Poitras/CBC)

The head of Opportunities New Brunswick says the provincial job-creation agency will not require companies to allow their employment numbers to become public in return for receiving money from taxpayers.

Stephen Lund floated the idea last fall, after Auditor-General Kim MacPherson criticized the Crown corporation for not implementing all of her recommendations in the wake of the Atcon fiasco.

I'm not political. We're not political. I've never been to a political event in my life.- Stephen Lund, Opportunities New Brunswick

But Lund and ONB vice-president Paul Fudge told CBC News on Monday they surveyed all the companies that have received funding so far, and more than two-thirds said they didn't want to give up their right to confidentiality.

"Almost 70 per cent said no," Fudge said.

He said officials did consider whether "to release some of the smaller companies who did say yes, versus the larger companies who said no and who are more worried about privacy and competitiveness."

But, he said, "we decided that it wasn't fair to release just a partial number for what we had."

Recommendations not implemented

Last fall, MacPherson criticized Opportunities New Brunswick, created by the Liberals in 2015, for not implementing many of her Atcon recommendations.

That included requiring companies that received taxpayer subsidies to reveal how many jobs they were actually creating.

New Brunswick Auditor General Kim MacPherson said the public should be told the actual number of jobs a company creates using government money. (Maria Burgos/CBC)

MacPherson said government agencies like to make job-creation forecasts when they announce funding to attract a company, but they rarely report back on whether the company hit the target.

"It's not enough to say 'Expected jobs,'" MacPherson said last fall. "What about 'actual jobs?'"

Lund responded at the time that Opportunities New Brunswick had legal advice from the Attorney-General's Office that specific job-creation numbers for each company is commercial, competitive information protected by confidentiality.

The only way to release it would be if the company agreed to it, something Lund said last fall ONB would consider asking companies to do.

Despite the 70 per cent refusal rate, Lund said Monday it may still be possible eventually.

"We don't know what's going to happen in the future. We're going to continue to try to push the envelope. But we believe we are being more transparent and that will continue to happen over the years."

Put in agreement

MLA Bruce Fitch suggests making the job creation figures public should be part of the agreements companies make to get money from New Brunswick. Lottery winners have to public, he says. (CBC)

PC MLA Bruce Fitch said there's no reason Lund couldn't impose the requirement now.

"It's pretty easy to put that into an agreement," he said.

He pointed out lottery winners have to agree to go public, "and some of these companies, it's probably like a lottery win to them," he said.

Fitch said that without a requirement to release actual job creation numbers, governments can mount a "big show" of a job creation announcement without ever having to say if the target was hit.

The recommendation to release actual job creation numbers was one of 19 recommendations MacPherson made in 2015 after the first of two audits into the Atcon affair.

Disagreed with auditor-general

In her second audit last year, MacPherson said ONB had only implemented four of the 19 recommendations from the first report. 

Officials at Opportunities New Brunswick disagreed with her interpretation and said they had implemented 15 of 19, but were "offside" with the required paperwork in a small number of cases — a situation MacPherson defined as not implemented.

MacPherson's conclusion prompted PC Leader Blaine Higgs to demand Lund be fired.

ONB was created by Premier Brian Gallant's Liberal government in 2015, replacing the Invest New Brunswick agency created by the previous Progressive Conservative government.

Neither agency existed when the Liberal cabinet of Shawn Graham overruled civil servants to give loans and loan guarantees worth $50 million to the Atcon group of companies in 2009.

And Lund said last year that had his agency been involved, the Atcon funding would never have been approved under ONB's more rigorous, non-political application process.

Public financing to be listed 

While ONB won't release company-by-company job numbers, it will begin listing each company that receives public financing along with the amount, as well as a total tally of actual and committed jobs, Lund said Monday. The web page will be updated quarterly.

"The clients have to accept that we're going to announce the offer and announce the payments," Lund said.

"If you look on the websites of any other similar organization across the country, you won't find that kind of information," Lund said. "We're trying to be as transparent as possible."

The CEO recently published an opinion piece on social media asserting that "despite what you may hear in the news, great things are happening in New Brunswick."

Lund says Oppportunities New Brunswick will be more transparent about job creation in general, even if it won't say how many jobs individual companies have created with financial assistance from taxpayers. (CBC New Brunswick)
He wrote that ONB's business-recruitment efforts, such as payroll rebates, created 3,639 new jobs from April 2015 to December 2017 and it has signed commitments for a total of 7,754 over the next five years.

That includes the much-heralded 1,000 jobs that BMM Test Labs promised in 2015 that it would create in Moncton over four years. Lund said last year the company was "behind" schedule in hitting that target.

Lund said the 3,639-job figure is "the most conservative" count. Most provincial job-creation agencies "count things like indirect jobs, spin-off jobs, 'maintained' jobs," he said.

"We haven't looked at any of those."

'Not political'

Lund's piece said ONB has "surpassed" the job-creation record of its predecessor, the PC-created Invest New Brunswick. He said that claim, just six months before an election campaign, was not a political argument.

"I'm not political. We're not political. I've never been to a political event in my life," he said.

The comparison was "extremely relevant" simply because Invest NB "was the previous organization before ours," he said. "Without a comparison, numbers sometimes don't mean as much to people."

He said Invest New Brunswick averaged 800 jobs created per year while ONB was averaging 1,881.

After taking power in 2014, the Liberals used legislation to dismantle Invest NB and fire its CEO, well-known PC supporter and former G.E. Barbour Inc. executive Robert MacLeod.