New Brunswick

PCs step back from hard line on ONB transparency

Progressive Conservative enthusiasm for more transparency at Opportunities New Brunswick appears to be less urgent now that the party is back in power.

In 2017, then-Opposition Leader Blaine Higgs called for the firing of ONB's CEO

Economic Development Minister Mary Wilson says she has met with officials at Opportunities New Brunswick who say they are committed to transparency. (CBC)

Progressive Conservative enthusiasm for more transparency at Opportunities New Brunswick appears to be less urgent now that the party is back in power.

The Tories demanded specific job-creation figures from the agency just two years ago — and called for the firing of its CEO when those numbers weren't provided — but are now counselling patience.

The shift in tone comes after Auditor General Kim MacPherson reported again last week that ONB still isn't fully complying with her recommendations on disclosing job-creation figures.

"It's a big job for ONB to make sure they do their best to answer what the AG requires," Economic Development Minister Mary Wilson said in an interview.

She said she has met officials there and they're committed to transparency.

"All I can do, I guess, is continue to work with ONB and do our best to accommodate the auditor general, and be accountable to New Brunswickers on that."

Wilson also brushed aside questions about the agency's CEO, Stephen Lund.

In 2017, then-Opposition Leader Blaine Higgs called on the Liberal government to fire Lund after accusing him of misleading MLAs about MacPherson's recommendations.

No plans to remove agency's CEO

Now that Higgs is premier, Wilson said there are no plans to remove Lund.

"All I can say if we continue to look in the past, we're not going to be able to move forward," she said. "So let's draw that line in the sand and work towards tomorrow, and see how we can make things better."

MacPherson first called for greater transparency at ONB in 2015, when she issued 19 recommendations as part of an audit into tens of millions of dollars of lost loans and loan guarantees to the Atcon group of companies.

Mary Wilson says there are no plans to remove ONB CEO Stephen Lund, pictured. (CBC New Brunswick)

The bulk of the lost money was $50 million approved in 2009 by the Liberal cabinet of then-Premier Shawn Graham over the objections of civil servants, who warned the investment was risky.

ONB didn't exist at the time and Lund has said the Atcon money would never have been approved through his agency's more rigorous scrutiny.

Among MacPherson's 19 recommendations was one urging ONB to release figures comparing how many jobs are expected and how many are created. Her new audit says ONB reported actual jobs in 2016-17 but not the target.

I recall our premier stating that over many years, there's been huge money handed out on corporate handouts, and again, where's the accountability? Are jobs being created? Job creation is the number one thing we're looking for, and that's my job going forward.- Mary Wilson, Economic Development Minister

In January 2017, Lund got into a lengthy and tense exchange with then-PC MLA Kirk MacDonald at a legislative committee hearing. Lund refused to give MacDonald job-creation results for several companies MacDonald listed.

The Tory MLA suggested that companies shouldn't get subsidies if they weren't willing to let their job-creation results go public.

ONB said last March it could not release company-by-company results because that would reveal commercial, competitive information protected by confidentiality.

The organization now says on its website now many total jobs have been promised and how many have been created. As of Friday, the site said 10,907 jobs have been committed and 4,989 have been created since ONB's inception in April 2015.

In a written statement, ONB vice-president Heather Libbey did not respond to a question about company-by-company job figures.

Instead, she said MacPherson's report "validates that ONB continues to demonstrate its commitment to improving access to and proactively disclosing how it manages and invests public funds."

More transparency needed 

Wilson, a first-term MLA elected last September, at first defended ONB's decision to provide only aggregate numbers, calling it "all of their information that New Brunswickers would want to see."

But over the course of a 10-minute interview, she warmed to the need for more transparency.

"We have to be careful on those corporate handouts, absolutely," she said.

"I recall our premier stating that over many years, there's been huge money handed out on corporate handouts, and again, where's the accountability? Are jobs being created? Job creation is the number one thing we're looking for, and that's my job going forward."

She said she will be reviewing the issue in the months to come.

ONB discloses how much money it has handed out to each company, but last year it said it surveyed recipients and found 70 per cent did not want their individual job numbers released.

Auditor general upset over lack of progress

MacPherson said last week 12 of the 19 recommendations to ONB have now been implemented, up from her count of four in 2017.

Auditor General Kim MacPherson reported again last week that ONB still won't say how many jobs are created at each individual company it subsidizes. (Michel Corriveau/Radio-Canada)

"There's progress, but yet we would have liked to have seen 100 per cent implementation, and I definitely think that's what should have happened, given that we're now 2019," she told MLAs last Wednesday.

The call by Higgs for Lund's firing stemmed from a disagreement over how MacPherson counted implemented recommendations.

ONB claimed in 2017 it had implemented 15 recommendations, only to be contradicted by MacPherson's count of four.

Minister doesn't see major changes coming

ONB vice-president Paul Fudge said last year they had put in place most of the extra monitoring MacPherson wanted, but, in a few cases, some files "were missing a piece of paperwork." ONB considered that an implemented recommendation but MacPherson did not.

After the auditor general contradicted Lund's count in 2017, Higgs declared, "Stephen Lund should lose his job over this. He should be fired."

But Wilson said, "in fairness, they are working very hard to make things better, accountable, transparent. I don't see any major changes coming in the near future."

The minister said in the coming months the Higgs government will launch an all-party review of ONB's mandate and will look at other ways to "energize" the private sector by lowering taxes and reducing red tape.

Corrections

  • A previous version of this article said Auditor-General Kim MacPherson had called for company-by-company job-creation figures. In fact, that demand came only from the Progressive Conservatives when in opposition, not the auditor-general.
    Jan 22, 2019 3:01 PM AT

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