New Brunswick

Cathy Rogers won't have same clout as former finance ministers

Premier Brian Gallant may be touting his historic appointment of Cathy Rogers as New Brunswick’s first female finance minister, but the job no longer includes all of the power and influence it once did.

Finance minister loses one of the key parts of the portfolio, control over government spending after shuffle

Finance Minister Cathy Rogers said she is a "budget nerd" and is looking forward to getting to work in her new portfolio, but it's been stripped of some of its power and influence. (CBC)

Premier Brian Gallant may be touting his historic appointment of Cathy Rogers as New Brunswick's first female finance minister, but the job no longer includes all of the power and influence it once did.

One of the key parts of the job, control over government spending, was stripped away from the position in the recent cabinet shuffle and remains with cabinet minister Roger Melanson, a long-time Liberal insider.

Melanson's new position is president of the treasury board, the powerful cabinet committee that oversees major spending decisions.

In the past, that role was occupied by the finance minister. But Gallant's shuffle elevates the job to a cabinet-level position in its own right, held by Melanson. 

"In many ways, I feel somewhat sympathetic for Minister Rogers," said former PC finance minister Blaine Higgs.

"She's been put in a position that has had much of its authority taken away.

Blaine Higgs, the finance minister in the Alward government, said control over spending is a key part of the job and Rogers has lost that element. (CBC)
"It's like an empty position in some ways … To put a person in charge of so-called `finance' and then to put the spending in a different category under a different minister, that's a really hard position to be in."

Rogers is the vice-chair of two cabinet committees, including treasury board, but does not chair any of them.

Melanson chairs the jobs board, another cabinet committee, on top of running treasury board.​

​So while Rogers does have power and influence within Gallant's government, it's not as much as previous finance ministers have had, and not as much as Melanson has now.

'She's been put in a position that has had much of its authority taken away.' - Blaine Higgs , former PC finance minister

Higgs, the finance minister for four years in the Progressive Conservative government of David Alward, said control over spending is a key part of the job.

"When you take that out of the position, you're left primarily in a reporting position on what is the [fiscal] state of the province, with little ability to actually influence the state of the province," he said.

Rogers told CBC News the shift was a case of the Liberals "realigning things to get the best outcomes."

"A decision was made by the premier to make treasury board separate from the Department of Finance, and this is not unlike some other jurisdictions, like the federal government for example, and Nova Scotia," the finance minister said.

Roger Melanson, the former finance minister, was given a new position as president of the treasury board, the powerful cabinet committee that oversees major spending decisions. (CBC)

But she did not deny that the mandate of the finance minister job has changed.

"I'm really excited to play a role in fiscal policy, tax policy and revenue, and we'll work very closely together, of course," she said.

Asked if she has less authority than her predecessor, Rogers said that on "setting the budget, and gaming and fiscal policy, I look forward to playing a strong role with this."

Rogers is a first-term MLA while Melanson is a political veteran serving his second term. He's also a former political staffer to former premier Camille Theriault.

'Budget nerd'

Premier Brian Gallant praised Rogers on the day of the cabinet shuffle as someone with "a vast amount of experience that makes her a strong asset for our government." (CBC)

The day of the shuffle, Rogers told reporters that when she was a federal civil servant, she was "one of these budget nerds" who looked at fiscal documents to figure out government priorities.

"So now I get to be in a leadership position doing this, and I'm excited."

Gallant praised Rogers that day as someone with "a vast amount of experience that makes her a strong asset for our government."

But he also said the treasury board, chaired by Melanson, "will say yes or no to certain projects moving forward, in terms of whether we make an investment or not."

Higgs said the question of Rogers' authority is murkier because Gallant has not released new mandate letters to lay out what he expects each minister to do, something the premier did with his first cabinet in 2014.

"It's one thing when the departments have been well-defined for years and you move new people in," he said.

"But if you don't have a mandate letter on something [like treasury board] that's newly created, what are people to make of it?"

Gallant's office says new mandate letters are coming, but aren't ready yet.

Higgs also noted that last year, Rogers called the idea of raising the HST a "lazy way" to balance the budget.

Now, he said, she has to defend the increase taking effect July 1, while not having as much say over how the revenue is spent.

"In some ways she's been set up," Higgs said.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jacques Poitras

Provincial Affairs reporter

Jacques Poitras has been CBC's provincial affairs reporter in New Brunswick since 2000. Raised in Moncton, he also produces the CBC political podcast Spin Reduxit.

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