Critics lambaste PCs for 'politicizing' SEED program

Critics admonished the New Brunswick government for giving politicians more say in its provincial student employment program — influence, they say, that opens the door for abuse. 

The Progressive Conservatives announced changes to the Student Employment Experience Development, or SEED, program that scrap the lottery for placement vouchers in favour of students applying directly to approved employers, which have been limited to non-profit organizations, First Nations and municipalities.

Employers can apply for SEED funding, and each MLA, regardless of party affiliation, will be allowed to recommend 22 placements in their riding.

Labour Minister Trevor Holder said earlier this week the Department of Post-Secondary Education, Training and Labour will have the final say over employers, but critics believe putting politicians back in the process is wrong.


Green Party Leader David Coon said he's "very unhappy" with the decision.

"It's patently unacceptable to involve MLAs in making decisions about summer student job funding," he told CBC News. 

"I fought hard in 2014 and early 2015 to convince the government of the day to replace that process and I was successful. They agreed with me that it had no place in modern day New Brunswick and now the [PC] government has brought it back."

Coon said there are no criteria for which employers can be recommended and history shows the program can be abused.

"In the bad old days, some of the worst examples that I heard about where some MLAs told non-profits that, you know, they would get the funding if they hired this person or that person should they get the funding," Coon said.

He continued: "I'm not saying the majority of MLAs are going to abuse it that way, but it opens it up to that and we've certainly seen it in the past."

System changes

The previous Liberal government installed a system in which high school and post-secondary students entered a draw for placement vouchers and interested employers would then have to find a student with a voucher.

Liberal MLA Roger Melanson, a cabinet minister in the previous government, said Thursday it was designed to allow students to work in their field of study.

Holder said that system meant some unlucky students never received a placement, and it also created a disadvantage for rural employers and some non-profits that relied on students to run summer programs because there weren't enough nearby students with vouchers.

"In my view we have finally taken the politics out of it and treated every region around the province equal, regardless of how the people in that area voted," Holder told reporters on Tuesday. "And I think this will go a long way to de-politicizing this process."

The New Brunswick Student Alliance, which previously lobbied to have MLAs removed from the program, criticized the changes following the announcement, saying department officials were better suited at identifying job opportunities.

In a followup statement, executive director KJ Conyers-Steede said the changes will limit the variety of available placements, especially those interested in the business sector. 

Shane Fowler/CBC

He said the alliance was concerned with renewed political involvement and fewer placements overall.

"We view these changes as a step in the wrong direction by politicizing the post-secondary sector," the statement said. "Student issues are being ignored and convoluted in a system that prioritizes political wins over resolving the real concerns of students."

'That's political interference'

Mario Levesque, a political science professor at Mount Allison University, said giving MLAs a voice in the process is "simply wrong."

"It does leave room for politics to enter the decision-making process again, which is unfortunate," Levesque said. 'I think that you would want to try to eliminate politics from it altogether." 

The labour minister said he trusts MLAs to understand their district's priorities and that it's part of the government's "strategy to empower MLAs," but Levesque said that's "silly."

Shane Fowler/CBC

"MLAs here are having the power to choose the people and what positions [they] get in their own riding. That's political interference in the summer jobs program," he said. "That should not be acceptable and not allowable at all. That's pure partisanship and, in our democratic society, wrong actually."

Both Levesque and Coon said the placements shouldn't be spread evenly throughout the province since there's more need in the cities. 

The Green leader said it should be up to the Department of Post-Secondary Education, Training and Labour to develop criteria for placements. 

The PC changes also include fewer job placements — down 200 from the 1,400 jobs last summer.

The Tories say that by keeping the budget steady at $5.5 million but focusing on non-profits and First Nations, there are fewer dollars to go around.

The government covers 100 per cent of placements in those areas, whereas the private sector received a 50 per cent subsidy. Municipalities also take on half of the cost.