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Premier Alward's 'Surprise!' governance style

New Brunswick Green's David Coon on forestry strategies, gas royalty regimes, access denied and the 'I' word

by Miles Howe

“There's nowhere else in the country where you have one single corporate player that dominates the economy so overwhelmingly." - David Coon on the Irving Empire [Photo: davidcoongreenparty.wordpress.com]
“There's nowhere else in the country where you have one single corporate player that dominates the economy so overwhelmingly." - David Coon on the Irving Empire [Photo: davidcoongreenparty.wordpress.com]

K'JIPUKTUK (HALIFAX) – David Coon, leader of the New Brunswick Greens, is one of the only political players willing to speak critically of the influence of the Irving empire upon the Maritime province.

From forestry plans, to natural gas royalty regimes, to the public's ever-dwindling rights to information, to Coon it's a case of one New Brunswick government after another being beholden to the Irving agenda.

Which to Coon does not equate with the public good.

“A lot of people are fed up with the willingness with which the old line parties have adopted - and do adopt - the agenda of the Irving companies and the agenda of other large corporations to the exclusion of pursuing the public good,” says Coon in a telephone interview with the Halifax Media Co-op.

“There's nowhere else in the country where you have one single corporate player that dominates the economy so overwhelmingly. And if that's not enough, the Irvings control virtually all the province's print media, excluding the francophone daily and the English bi-weekly in Charlotte county.”

Of recent note, Coon has watched the force of the Irving economic engine – and the effects of its lobbying efforts – upon the recently unveiled New Brunswick forestry plan.

The new plan, which has been met with sharp criticism from environmental groups in New Brunswick and beyond for ponying up an increased percentage of remaining Crown land to the largely Irving-controlled timber business, is to Coon nothing but a re-hash of a 2001 list of demands that then big-forestry presented to the government of the day.

“Their demands in 2001 were for a significant increase in the amount of the wood supply as well as a guaranteed amounts of wood supply for the future. This series of demands were leaked to me when I was director of the Conservation Council,” says Coon. “I made them public and a firestorm of opinion ensued. That led to a long list of activities, where the companies hired the Finish company Jaakko Poyry to give their demands some kind of legitimacy wrapped in a consultation policy.”

The lobbying efforts have been tireless, says Coon, but were resisted semi-successfully until Shawn Graham's Liberal government issued the 'Erdle report' in 2009, “which essentially gave the forestry companies and the Irvings what they were looking for,” in terms of an increased access to Crown lands, says Coon.

Indeed, Coon notes that when the current Alward government rode into power they issued an original forestry management plan; something more along the lines of the public's demands to move away from the Erdle report. To Coon, this second, newly-released, forestry strategy is a backtrack – and a surprise one at that.

“When the government changed they responded to the calls form the public and various peoples from the forestry sector to change the Liberal strategy, and address some of the flaws in the [Graham] strategy,” says Coon. “So then Minister of Natural Resources Bruce Northrup brought in a forestry strategy in 2012 that nobody loved but everyone could live with.

“It turns out that first forestry strategy was never implemented, much to everyone's surprise outside of the corporate sector. In fact it seems like a very deep hole was dug and it was buried. The first time anyone knew that there was another forestry strategy coming in to replace the existing one was last fall in a question period. In response to an unrelated question Premier Alward let it slip that they were working on a new forestry strategy. And that was the first time that anyone had ever heard of it outside of the inner circle that exists between the government and the Irvings.”

Coon notes that Premier Alward's 'Surprise!' style of governance is also not limited to the recently unveiled forestry strategy 2.0. Rather it has fast become a trademark move of a government little interested in public consultation, or opinion.

“The Conservatives essentially re-wrote the electricity act which governs the operations of New Brunswick Power,” says Coon. “There was no information to go on, no backgrounds, no understanding of how they were making those decisions. There was no consultation whatsoever.

“It wasn't even sent a law amendments committee where witnesses could be brought in for it to be examined, the public could be brought in to comment; it never happened. It was just rammed through the legislature.”

The hows and whys of the New Brunswick natural gas royalty regime follow the same pattern.

“They announced what the royalty regime was going to be,” says Coon. “There was no information on what evidence they drew on to arrive at the royalty regime they plan to institute. The royalty regime was never debated in the legislative assembly. It never went to a committee for examination.”

Coon has also found that when pressed for background information, however seemingly innocuous, Alward's Conservative government quills up and protects documents that until recently would have been available for public perusal. Curious - as opposition politicians are wont to be - as to how the Conservatives had arrived at the newly minted royalty regime, Coon filed a request for information for the copies of the contracts signed with consultants, as well as the consultants' reports themselves.

“In the case of the contracts I felt it was important that everyone know who they were hiring, how much they were paying them and what the terms of reference were, what they were asking them to look at,” says Coon.

Both requests were denied.

Undeterred, Coon filed a complaint with the commissioner on access to information. The commissioner sided in Coon's favour.

“After ten months she issued a fifteen page report which recommended to the finance minister that he release copies of the contracts because there was nothing under the right to information act that allowed him to keep them secret,” says Coon. “She did agree with the minister that it was within his rights to withhold the actual reports themselves that the consultants had submitted.

“I received a letter fairly rapidly after she filed a report from the minister saying he denied the recommendation of the commissioner to release the copies of the contracts with the consultants in question.”

Determined, Coon now has a court date set for May 1st in order to see whether a judge will side with the commissioner and force the release of the consultants' contracts.

“In the past, whether it was new forest strategies or new electricity strategy, there was alway pretty widely available analyses upon which these decisions were made. So the background information was made widely available. With this government that's just not been the case.”


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