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The Gallant government, Atcon, and our tenacious, determined Auditor General

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Talk about your showdown at the OK Corral or in this case, at the New Brunswick legislature.  It will be interesting to see how this goes. On the one hand we have Auditor-General Kim MacPherson saying she is giving notice, not asking permission, to do a forensic audit into Atcon. On the other hand there is the government, which has said they aren’t against her investigating Atcon further, except they won’t OK the money necessary to do it. 

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The wrinkle though is that the Auditor General technically doesn’t work for the government, she works for the legislature. Which means that the legislature’s Legislative Administration Committee will have to vote on whether to give her the funds. The Liberals control that vote because they have the majority of committee members, but MacPherson says even if they vote no, she will do the audit anyway.

Strategically, this is interesting. Social media has been working overtime with lots of comments on all sides of this, but most giving her virtual high-fives. Many though are speculating that the time may be close when the government finds that MacPherson’s skill set doesn’t meet the government’s needs, an obvious reference to the recent dismissal of Chief Medical Officer Dr. Eilish Cleary.

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Many say she’s crazy because she will face this potential fate. But if she’s crazy, she’s crazy like a fox. While there is still no definitive reason why Dr. Cleary was let go, the public perception is that it was politically motivated. That may or may not be true, but the perception is there and for this reason alone, the government would not dare dismiss the Auditor-General. And she knows it.

Whether this firmed her resolve to take this stand, or whether, like she says it’s because she has heard a lot of concern from the public and because the government hasn’t been forthcoming with answers, the thing is she is going to do it, and most New Brunswickers seem to be onside, even though it will cost money, maybe in the neighbourhood of $1 million.

I expect the opposition Tories are giddy about this development. Ever since the Brian Gallant government was elected, the Tories never missed an opportunity to remind the public that six of the MLAs Gallant appointed to his cabinet were also part of the Shawn Graham cabinet that ignored the advice of its bureaucrats and granted Atcon a $70 million loan guarantee, just before the company went bankrupt and the money was lost.  And now, for the Tories, Atcon will continue to be the gift that keeps on giving.

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For its part, Premier Gallant and in fact the Atcon 6 have steadfastly refused to answer the questions the audit may finally answer. With a combination of frustration and arrogance, when repeatedly asked in Question Period about it, those questions were never afforded real answers. The responses were always along the lines of chastising the Conservatives for dwelling on the past or claiming the questions had already been answered. 

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And the government has steadfastly said Atcon has already been investigated and to go further would not be a good use of taxpayer money. In short their message has amounted to “move along now – nothing to see here”.

All of that comes up short, because those responsible have never apologized and never explained, beyond saying they were trying to save jobs in the Miramichi. But related questions, like why the government would surrender security on the money to the bank, especially when they had been told how risky it was, have never been satisfied.

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It was a long time ago, and it was a former government, but New Brunswickers deserved a full explanation then and they deserve it now. But it is obvious they were never going to get it from the government. So it is understandable why so many are now applauding Kim MacPherson’s determination.

She says her focus will be on where the money went. To what extent it and other related questions will be satisfied is in itself a good question.

Speaking of good questions, wouldn’t it be good if the government was half as committed to providing answers to New Brunswick taxpayers as the Auditor General is?

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