New Brunswick

Blame game: Liberals often point to civil servants in times of trouble

Premier Brian Gallant's finger-pointing response to his government's property assessment scandal is in some ways remarkable — and in other ways completely consistent.

Parliamentary tradition of ministerial responsibility has eroded in recent decades, says professor

Premier Brian Gallant says a new agency will be set up apart from the provincial government to handle property tax assessments. (CBC)

Premier Brian Gallant's response to his government's property assessment scandal is in some ways remarkable — and in other ways completely consistent.

The premier said on Friday he and other elected officials were in the dark about made-up renovations by Service New Brunswick that boosted assessment values.

Again Monday, he attributed the assessment fiasco to "a failure of process and communication within Service New Brunswick."

It's not the first time Gallant or his Liberal ministers have blamed unnamed staffers and civil servants for some of the biggest controversies of their time in office.

Carleton University professor Philippe Lagassé says the tradition of ministerial responsibility has eroded in recent decades, especially at the provincial level in Canada. (Courtesy of Philippe Lagassé)
And it's a break with the tradition of ministerial responsibility in the British parliamentary system of government, according to Carleton University political scientist Philippe Lagassé.

A civil servant "isn't accountable to the legislature and is not in a position to answer questions," Lagassé said.

Ministers "are responsible and accountable for the affairs of their department," he said. "If they held the office during the period when a problem occurred, they are blameworthy for the incident.

"It doesn't mean they can't say that a civil servant or an official or a staffer was the cause of it, but it doesn't change the fact that they are the ones ultimately who have to account and answer for it."

Campaign tax promise

The tendency to deflect appeared even before Gallant was premier. During the 2014 election, he said confusion over one of his tax promises was because "there was a staffer who was working till about 4 a.m. giving us the numbers."

In that case, Gallant also said he would "take full responsibility."

Since then, the premier and his ministers have pointed the finger elsewhere several times:

Wayne Grant posting

Commissionaire Wayne Grant said his hours were cut back after the province received a language complaint when he was working at Chancery Place. (CBC)
When Wayne Grant, a unilingual commissionaire, was temporarily posted to the front desk of Chancery Place — where bilingualism is required — in November 2015, Gallant said the decision came from his employer, the Corps of Commissionaires.

"It's a third party that's been contracted to do the human resources activities for that," he said. "It's not government and I think it's important to point that out."

The Corps later told CBC News "the client was consulted" and knew a unilingual commissionaire would be posted to Chancery.

Weakening the Inquiries Act

When the Liberals withdrew two unpopular bills in April 2016 to weaken the Inquiries Act and the powers of the auditor general, Attorney General Serge Rousselle said the civil service had been working on the legislation for a decade.

"There was no emergency, and there's still no emergency," he said. "We've survived for 100 and so many years with the old one, so we'll just continue with it."

Lagassé called that "just ridiculous."

"If they tabled it, they're responsible for it. End of story. You can't blame civil servants, who have no power to table legislation, for legislation."

Financing Bas-Caraquet shipyard

Victor Boudreau said the Gallant government went ahead with funding for the Bas-Caraquet shipyard because ministers weren't given an accurate briefing about the a financing plan. (CBC)
In April 2016, cabinet minister Victor Boudreau said the Gallant cabinet went ahead with funding because ministers weren't given an accurate briefing about who was on the hook to provide $13 million in financing.

"Government made a decision based on that," he said, "and with time that's gone on, and as we've looked into this file, we've come to the realization that not all of this information was part of the package that was presented to us as a new government."

Lagassé said that deflection was a problem because "there's no way for us to verify that." Boudreau wouldn't identify who prepared the briefing materials.

Lagassé also said it's a minister's job to make sure he or she is given correct information.

"If they weren't, they still, in that case, have to own up to their ignorance and not shift the blame to somebody else."

Water testing at Parlee Beach

Environment Minister Serge Rousselle said mistakes by staff led to water-quality results that underestimated the risk to public health. (Jacques Poitras/CBC)
Earlier this year, Rousselle, who is also the environment minister, said "there was effectively a mistake done" by staff at Parlee Beach that led to water-quality results that underestimated the risk to public health.

"There was no … order to change the system," he said. "It is just that somebody by mistake did change the system." No further details have been provided to date.

Rousselle has also blamed errors by his department for a walking trail that was built through several waterways without a required permit.

Bigger problem in provinces

Lagassé said the tradition of ministerial responsibility has eroded in recent decades, and has always been "much more slippery" at the provincial level than in Ottawa.

As governments become larger and more complex, it's harder for ministers to keep tabs on huge amounts of information, he said.

"It's a bit of natural reaction on their part to get frustrated and say 'I didn't make these decisions,'" he said.

But he said minister responsibility is still essential to a properly functioning democracy.

"There's no getting around the fact that constitutionally, we have to preserve the concept. Otherwise we end up in an untenable situation where ministers are shirking their responsibilities and attempting to lay it on actors who can't be held to account directly."

PC Leader Blaine Higgs says 'leadership takes ownership' and doesn't blame others for problems. (Legislative Assembly)
The pattern has frustrated the Progressive Conservative opposition.

"Leadership takes ownership," PC Leader Blaine Higgs said Friday. "You don't blame someone else for your shortcomings. You deal with it."

Asked about the tradition of ministerial responsibility on Friday, Gallant said it's important, "but in this case I think it's very important that we find out what happened … before we start pointing fingers and before we start going after people.

"What is clear, and we're certainly not hiding that, is we weren't aware of all the facts."