Collaboration in Civic Spheres

Is This Public Engagement Or Public Relations?

by May 10th, 2010

By Robert Goguen

Let the bells ring out and the banners fly. Shawn Graham has seen the light. After ignoring the people of New Brunswick for the three-and-a-half years since he was elected, the premier has now done an about face and is now interested in the opinions of New Brunswickers.

Like Saul’s conversion on the road to Damascus or the Beatles going to India to meet with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, Shawn Graham too found enlightenment, in his case at a Liberal retreat in St. Andrews.

But in Mr. Graham’s case, finding a better way wasn’t so much a spiritual experience as, dare we say, a political one, born out of the reality that there’s an election coming in the next four months.

To quote Mr. Graham from Thursday’s Telegraph-Journal, “I feel a change in the mood and tone of New Brunswickers.” No kidding. The premier is now sensing that New Brunswickers want to be consulted on decisions that affect them. Who’d have thunk it?

What in the world would have given him that idea? He never felt especially obligated to do anything but ignore New Brunswickers on every major decision he has made so far, until the inevitable public pressure forced him to backtrack. But now he senses that New Brunswickers want to be consulted? Let’s look at some possible clues that could have led to the premier coming to this conclusion.

Could it have been the 30,000-plus plus people who joined a Facebook group upset that the proposed sale of NB Power was being hoisted on them without them being allowed a say, or the 3,000 or so people who gathered on the legislature lawn to protest on one or more occasion, or the New Brunswick citizens who had to take him to court to save their French second language programs, or could it have been the thousands who took to the streets of Saint John to fight the government’s intention to change UNBSJ into a polytechnic?

No, it couldn’t have been any of those, because after each of those decisions ended in failure, he never once said it was because the people of the province were opposed. Even after the grand-daddy of them all, the NB Power deal collapsed, the premier still couldn’t bring himself to admit it was because New Brunswickers didn’t want it; rather, he blamed it on Quebec. In other words, he could care less what New Brunswick voters want.

So what could it be that has resulted in this change in attitude? Back in 2007, his government paid Ontario consultant Don Lenihan $100,000 to improve the government’s public consultation process, but despite spending that amount of taxpayer’s money, the consultant’s recommendations were ignored. So even with a blueprint of how to do it, the premier couldn’t actually bring himself to try listening to New Brunswickers. It was a concept he simply couldn’t get his head around.

But now, more than three years later, he’s ready. Bring on the people, he wants to hear what New Brunswickers think; he really does. But why now? What’s changed? Could it be at their retreat in St. Andrews this week they suggested that with mere months to go before the election, it might be time to take a page from the PC playbook and consult with the public from time to time?

The appointing of a specific ministry to be in charge of public engagement is further evidence Mr. Graham doesn’t understand the concept. Public engagement shouldn’t be something separate from the operations of government. Public engagement is a philosophy of governing; a principle that guides decisions across all departments, not something relegated to a specific ministry

The premier is going to appoint a minister whose job, I assume, will be to remind other ministers that they should take a few minutes every now and then to ask New Brunswickers what they think.

It’s laughable. What it shows is that the premier still doesn’t get it. That’s a major difference between him and David Alward. Mr. Alward sees public consultation and public engagement as a fundamental responsibility of government. Mr. Graham seems to see it as a public relations exercise.

The appointing of a specific ministry to be in charge of public engagement is further evidence Mr. Graham doesn’t understand the concept. Public engagement shouldn’t be something separate from the operations of government. Public engagement is a philosophy of governing; a principle that guides decisions across all departments, not something relegated to a specific ministry.

If you have a government that believes in public consultation and public engagement, you don’t need a Minister of Public Engagement. In fact, such a position would be redundant and a waste of money and resources.

Since the premier chose to leave people out of every major decision even after a report his own government commissioned advised him to consult, there is no reason for anybody to believe that this will change just because he found a way to grab a headline by dreaming up an appointment. Thoughts of leopards and their spots come to mind.

Robert Goguen is a partner at a law firm in Moncton and president of the Progressive Conservative party of New Brunswick.

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