Province needs to take political ownership of property tax controversy

Province needs to take political ownership of property tax controversy

The Gallant government needs to take responsibility for the stunning property tax problems this year instead of blaming employees, says a St. Thomas University professor who teaches political communications.

"This is not the civil servants' fault, this is your fault," Jamie Gillies said Friday in an interview with Information Morning Fredericton.

Premier Brian Gallant and some of his ministers have been trying to fend off criticism over the cooked-up tax bills that went out to 2,048 property owners.

Last week, Gallant expressed uncertainty about his office involvement in a decision to accelerate a new problem-plagued property assessment system rather than phase it in over three years. He blamed Service New Brunswick employees for making poor decisions.

This week, however, his office acknowledged it had required Service New Brunswick to submit a detailed rationale for accelerating the switch and gave the final go-ahead to fast track the system.

Set up inquiry

Gallant apologized for the "inconvenience" the assessment problems caused, set up an independent inquiry to get to the bottom of them, and announced an independent agency would handle assessments in future.

Gillies said he appreciated the apology and the inquiry but said there were anomalies in the government's story. And whether the fast-tracking was decided in the premier's office or not, the issue needs to be cleared up.

He suggested the province has a transparency problem.

"There's some blame avoidance going on here as opposed to owning this issue," he said.

Problem isn't going away

With more people coming forward about  potential errors in their property tax bills, Gillies said the issue won't be going away soon.

And it's not the issue itself that's the problem, but the way it was handled, he said.

"It's the response to the problems that are building here, and that's perhaps what the public remembers."

Gillies said Gallant needs to demonstrate how his government is taking political responsibility.

Otherwise, "the story becomes who knows what and who made the decision to do this," Gillies said. "And we need all the facts and that's what the public is wanting hear."  

Gillies compared Gallant's handling of the tax fiasco to former premier David Alward's handling of controversial pension reforms.

"They worked transparently to try to solve that and in terms of communication they did a pretty good job on that issue," he said of the Progressive Conservatives.

Political impact unclear

With an election coming next year, Gillies wasn't sure of the political effects of the tax issue but said it is quite personal for New Brunswickers. 

"This is personal for a lot of people," he said. "This is their property taxes."

If the governing Liberals should lose the next election, he said, New Brunswick might set a record for one-term governments in a row.