New Brunswick

Blaine Higgs ready to push for answers on property assessment controversy in Legislature

New Brunswick's Legislature promises to get ugly this afternoon as MLAs return from a three week break and re-enter the cauldron of question period with a whole new set of property assessment controversies hanging in the air.

'He (Gallant) has in effect lied to the public — deception at the very least in a very significant way'

Premier Brian Gallant and Opposition leader Blaine Higgs (CBC)

New Brunswick's Legislature promises to get ugly this afternoon as MLAs return from a three week break and re-enter the cauldron of question period with a whole new set of property assessment controversies hanging in the air.

Opposition leader Blaine Higgs has made getting to the bottom of Premier Brian Gallant's personal role in encouraging the adoption of a troubled new property assessment system his primary focus.  And he's not mincing words in his assessment of the premier's explanations so far.

"He (Gallant) has in effect lied to the public — deception at the very least in a very significant way," said Higgs on Monday.  

"When you've lost trust, you're not going to get it back because you can't invent trust. You've got to build it, and he's torn it down."

Controversy continues

The tone of that accusation will only feed what appears to be a growing personal enmity between Higgs and Gallant that has deepened in the last two months as the property tax controversy has unfolded.

The controversy itself swirls around widespread errors with thousands of property assessments and taxes generated by a new assessment system that was rushed into service two years ahead of schedule.

A record number of more than 12,000 dissatisfied property owners have subsequently asked for a review of their assessment and tax bills. 

The issue dominated question period during 12 sitting days in March, but that was before key details of the controversy were known.

During the Legislature recess earlier this month, Higgs accused Gallant's office of causing the untested assessment system to be pushed on the public. Higgs demanded the premier's resignation because of it.

Premier denied involvement

Gallant batted the idea aside at the time, saying categorically his office had nothing to do with accelerating the new assessment system. He accused Higgs of being a weak leader for bringing it up and said the accusations Higgs made about his office being involved in the new assessment system should come with evidence.

"These ideas that it was blessed by the premier's office — pushed by the premier's office — completely unfounded," said Gallant on April 6.

"I think the media, and more importantly Blaine Higgs, realize that making accusations should be founded on facts, should be founded on some type of document, not on anonymous sources."

But within days, two separate documents that challenged the premier's account did surface.  

This internal newsletter sent to SNB staff last year claims Premier Brian Gallant personally requested a new property assessment system be accelerated, although Gallant has denied that. (CBC)

One was a slide from a PowerPoint presentation to SNB employees explaining why the organization was fast-tracking the new assessment system. The other was an internal SNB newsletter delivering a similar message.

Both claimed Gallant personally requested the rapid deployment of the ill-fated system. Higgs said an explanation is needed for the apparent contradiction between their message and the premier's. 

"Those documents are critical - they're critical to the point that the premier has been trying to hide," said Higgs
  .
"He's been trying to hide a situation he created."

Still, it's unclear whether Higgs will get a response.

No comment to date

Gallant has commented on neither of the documents so far. He claims that would be inappropriate given he has appointed retired Justice Joseph Robertson to look into the property assessment controversy.

And Government House leader Rick Doucet had no comment Monday on how ministers will deal with the property assessment issue if it continues to dominate question period. 

"The government remains focused in the house on its agenda during this session," Doucet said in an emailed statement.

"By the time the session ends we will have passed 50 to 60 bills, many of them focusing in the areas of creating jobs, education and health care and on improving the lives of New Brunswickers."

About the Author

Robert Jones

Reporter

Robert Jones has been a reporter and producer with CBC New Brunswick since 1990. His investigative reports on petroleum pricing in New Brunswick won several regional and national awards and led to the adoption of price regulation in 2006.