Political scientist calls Gallant's review of property assessment form of 'damage control'

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Political scientist calls Gallant's review of property assessment form of 'damage control'

Political scientist calls Gallant's review of property assessment form of 'damage control'

Premier Brian Gallant says his government had a breakdown in decision-making and communications when its property assessment system went wrong, and he has promised a new commission will help uncover the root of the problems.

Property owners and the New Brunswick Legislature have been gripped by revelations that more than 2,000 property assessments were based on "invented" renovations.

"It demonstrates that we've had a real breakdown in process, a real breakdown in decision-making, a real breakdown with communication within government," Gallant said in an interview with Information Morning Moncton.

- 'We are going to fix it': Gallant vows changes to property assessment system 

"There are thousands of people who work for government, we're in charge of the organization, we have to make sure it runs smoothly and we recognize that."

At a news conference on Monday, Gallant apologized for the property assessment fiasco, which he blamed on civil servants, and promised to get the provincial government out of the property assessment business.

'Troubling and disappointing'

Gallant stressed several times that a preliminary review of property assessments has found an "arbitrary formula" used to help with the estimation of property values this year was also used in 2011.

"I'm in no way saying it's OK they did that," said Gallant on Tuesday morning. "I've made it very clear it's troubling and dissapointing."

The government will turn property assessments over to an independent agency.

Gallant also announced the government has asked a retired Court of Appeal judge to lead an independent review of the property assessment process.

Gallant said about 100,000 property assessments were done using the new technology.

"We don't know all the information and that's why the commission is so important," said Gallant.

"People will have to be held accountable for their actions. This keeps unravelling."

But Gallant backed up Service New Brunswick Minister Ed Doherty, saying he believed Doherty didn't know what was happening in his department.

"He has an impeccable record of credibility and integrity," Gallant said. "We take him at his word he had no idea about this."

Damage control

Erin Crandall, a political scientist at Acadia University, said Gallant's call for a review of the 2017 property tax assessments isn't surprising.

It falls under "Public policy 101," when a government hopes to make the problem disappear, Crandall said.

"It's certainly damage control," she said. 

Typically, she said, when big institutional changes happen within government, one of two events has commonly occurred: either an opposition party has gained power, or the party in power is grappling with a political scandal or other big external factor beyond its control.

​"They have to react to it because there will be moments where they're concerned about their political security," she said. "Is this something that could mean we won't win the next election?'" 

She said the property tax scandal has forced the Gallant Liberals to move immediately and make big changes to say, "Yes, this was a mistake, this is how we're changing it, and let's stop talking about it."

But she said the political damage has already been done because of the nature of the scandal and it won't go away easily.

"When you have a situation like this where … there are 2,000 people and it cost each of these people this amount of money … that's very compelling," she said. "It's something where all people who own property receive these assessments, so it can become very personal."

'Minister should be held accountable' 

Crandall said it's quite common for opposition parties to call for a minister's resignation, as Progressive Conservative Leader Blaine Higgs has done in the case of Doherty.

And in the Canadian system, a minister should be held accountable when things occur within government, she said. 

"Where does the buck stop? It's supposed to stop with the minister."

But today, especially at the provincial level, it's likely a minister would only resign because of a personal scandal. 

"Departments have become big and complex and you can't necessarily expect a minister to know everything," she said.

"On the other hand, if we let this convention become inactive, when we ask the question, 'Who's being held accountable? The lines become much more blurred and this direct mechanism of accountability doesn't work anymore." 

Crandall also said a minister employed by the people of New Brunswick should know everything going on. 

"People might say, 'If you didn't know, you should've known, and the fact that you didn't know is a problem in it of itself.'"