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Is Justice Minister Stephen Horsman guilty of an ethical breach, and did he just dodge a bullet?

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Back when the intended sale of NB Power to Hydro Quebec was the sole focus of discussion at the legislature, the government could easily sense it was losing ground.

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It was at the height of this debate that then Premier Shawn Graham stood in the legislature and told the House that the day before a woman had approached him on the street and said “Shawn, don’t you dare back down from this sale. We need this for the sake of our province’s future.” That’s not the exact quote, I’m paraphrasing from memory, but that was the gist of it.

I don’t know of anybody who thought for a minute that there was any such woman, but it’s a common ploy by politicians to try to buttress their side of the debate. It’s no coincidence these people are always anonymous.  There’s no way to prove no such encounter happened, and in fact maybe sometimes they do, but either way, it’s hard to challenge and so the Minister or whoever has to be taken at their word.

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Which is probably why Justice Minister Stephen Horsman didn’t think twice before he stood in the legislature during Question Period to defend a government bill that would give the government veto power over the Chief Justice’s decisions on what jurisdictions judges are assigned to. The Minster’s mistake is that he said several judges called him to say they favoured the government having a veto.

The problem with that, is that it would be very improper for such a discussion to take place. It all has to do with judicial independence. While the Minister probably didn’t realize such a claim could come back to bite him, judges do know better and it is highly unlikely any judge would ever call to enter into any such discussion.

Later, realizing this, Minister Horsman offered a clarification. He refused media interviews, but provided a statement that said, “I may have left the impression… that I received personal phone calls from members of the judiciary calling to commend the government”. Well, yes, you can see where when he said he received calls, that that would leave the impression that he received calls. His clarification is that he didn’t really get calls from judges, but he talked to some when he ran into them in social situations. Still a problem though, because it is the discussion that would be improper, not the fact it was or wasn’t on a telephone.

As politicians go, by pretty much any standard Stephen Horsman is one of the good ones. He’s a caring individual who, from everything I can gather entered politics for all the right reasons. He truly wants to help people.

But he wouldn’t be the first one to get swept up in the politics of being a politician, where winning the debate is seen as most important, and now; as a result, he’s got himself in a jam. 

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As expected, the Opposition Conservatives are calling for his resignation.  They do have a point when they suggest it has to be one or the other – he either had improper conversations with judges or he mislead the house. Both are serious ethical breaches.

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So far, Premier Gallant has dismissed the call to remove him. In fact his comment is that Minister Horsman is doing a great job. This doesn’t reflect well on the Premier, because it suggests he doesn’t consider either the conversations if they took place, or misleading the House and by extension the people of New Brunswick to be a lapse that matters to him.

But, now with the legislature in recess until the end of June, the Opposition is limited in its ability to keep the heat on anyway. So Minister Horsman and the Premier may have dodged a bullet.

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But the issue of Horsman’s improper discussions if they took place, or his misleading the House if they didn’t, is only part of the problem on this issue. As the Minister in charge of the file, he has done a terrible job of making the case why this legislation is necessary or even desirable, while Chief Justice David Smith has effectively made the point that it would amount to unacceptable government interference.

Like the changes to tuition relief and the closing down of the Gagetown ferry, this appears to be one more government decision that was not carefully thought out. And I expect that’s not on Horsman.

CORRECTION: I stated above Minister Horsman refused media interviews, but have now learned that he did provide at least one, to the CBC. I regret the error. 

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