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Atcon, the AG, and for the Opposition, the gift that keeps on giving

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Auditor General Kim MacPherson has done in one day what the Liberal government hasn’t been able to do for months – get the Opposition’s Question Period focus off fracking.

This week, she released her report on Atcon and the Tories were on that like a hungry dog on a bone. Premier Gallant’s position, on the other hand, is more along the line of “Nothing to see here folks. Nothing new here. Move along now.”

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But the Opposition isn’t about move along anytime soon. Question period yesterday was an interesting battle with the Conservatives pushing first to see if the Premier would identify the Minister mentioned in the report who signed away the province’s security on the loan. No dice.

Then asking if the government will authorize the Auditor General to conduct a forensic audit to see where the money went. No dice there either.

And the Premier didn’t bite when the Opposition asked, or to use their language demanded, that the six Ministers of his cabinet who were also in the Shawn Graham cabinet when the Atcon decision was made, be fired.

The Premier’s rebuttal was that the people of New Brunswick knew what happened with Atcon and still re-elected these members. He didn’t go so far as to say this proves the people of New Brunswick are OK with it; in fact he said he doesn’t blame New Brunswickers for being upset.

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But he’s walking a fine line here, and his position that there’s nothing new in the report doesn’t seem to be resonating.

The difference may be that this time, the word is coming down from our very credible Auditor General, and Kim MacPherson didn’t mince her words, remarking that the government of the day showed what she termed "a very troubling disregard for taxpayers’ money". She laid out a whole pattern of irresponsibility from the decision to ignore advice from senior bureaucrats who advised against loaning the money, to the government signing away its security on the loan, thereby putting taxpayers at even more risk.

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The difference is also that for the first time, we learned the actual content of the memos the cabinet received from their advisors, and we could see the very strong and straightforward warning they received that this was a bad deal. The documents show that bureaucrats advised the government that Atcon’s viability was “very questionable” and that Atcon “had a “dismal track record of repaying government money” and was “on the verge of collapse”. 

The Auditor General concluded there was absolutely no rational reason for the government to act as it did.

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No question it was a damning indictment of what amounts to blowing $70 million of taxpayers money.

Premier Gallant had absolutely nothing to do with it. But, six members of his cabinet did. And so far, while he’s saying the government is taking the AG’s report seriously, he’s otherwise stonewalling in counter to the Opposition’s efforts to keep the issue alive.

Those six ministers, meantime, have been avoiding the media for two days. Asked about that, the Premier would only say that all the information is out there.

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If by that he’s suggesting it is time to move on, that appears to be wishful thinking. The Opposition certainly isn’t about to stop, and you can bet that from here on they will remind New Brunswickers at every turn that what has been dubbed the Atcon 6, the ones that were party to wasting $70 million, are now the key decision makers in the Gallant government. Not the best message for a government that is about to bring down a budget of restraint with a message that we can’t afford to do otherwise.  

A quick scan of social media suggests many New Brunswickers aren’t ready to move on either, nor do they agree all the information is out there. The most common sentiment, for example in the comments on the CBC website, is outrage.

And despite the Premier saying all the information is known, questions do remain, the biggest being why these questionable decisions were made? People would like to hear from those six ministers, if not with an explanation of why, at least perhaps with an apology.

There’s risk in that, because the AG has pretty much said what they did is indefensible. But really, could apologizing possibly make it worse?  But mea culpa doesn't come easy for any politician, so we shouldn't expect it. So what then? 

The Premier is trying hard to put the focus on the future, not the past. So here’s something he could do. He could change the rules so that in the future, whenever a government cabinet decides to ignore bureaucratic advice, that it will be obliged to make that decision public, and explain why. That would be a step in the right direction.

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