Tag Archives: New Brunswick ombudsman

Our poor overlords


It appears that the problem with our democracy is not the character of our representation; it is our own wicked inclination to denigrate those who repeatedly disappoint us, even for good reason. Apparently, we’re in danger of electing only those people who can’t take a rhetorical poke from time to time.

Or, at least, so intimates New Brunswick Ombudsman Charles Murray in a recent commentary for the Saint John Telegraph-Journal. Here the good fellow waxes poetic: “Governments, departments and agencies will always be made up of human beings. That guarantees mistakes will be made. The Bard of Scotland, Robert Burns, reminded us that ‘the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry.’ Putting mice and men on the same level gets to the heart of it. Perhaps we might do well to pat ourselves on the back a little less when things are going well, and kick ourselves a little less when things have not worked out as we hoped.”

In other words, we should stop castigating politicians in power for changing their minds, lest we run the risk of “getting a government that’s less flexible, that’s more ideologically closed in, that’s less likely to listen, share information and be open. . .Please give us a government wise enough to know there is always more to learn and brave enough to change when change is needed.”

It’s good advice, as a far as it goes. The blame game in politics is as old as mugging for the camera and kissing babies on the campaign trail. But left to its own devices, the caustic fallout can be truly nauseating. For proof, look no further than the United States where any backtracking on any issue, no matter how ludicrous, is a surefire recipe for career suicide.

According a recent piece in the Huffington Post, “It turns out there are some gun control proposals that Republicans and Democrats actually agree on. New findings from the Pew Research Center (show that) fully 85 per cent of Americans – including 88 per cent of Democrats and 79 per cent of Republicans – believe people should have to pass a background check before purchasing guns in private sales or at gun shows. Currently, only licensed gun dealers are required to perform background checks. A majority of Americans (79 percent) also back laws to prevent those with mental illness from purchasing guns. There is a greater divide between the parties on other gun issues. Seventy percent of respondents support the creation of a federal database to track all gun sales, including 85 percent of Democrats but just 55 percent of Republicans. A more narrow majority (57 percent) would like to ban assault-style weapons. That proposal draws support from 70 percent of Democrats and 48 percent of Republicans.”

But those Republicans who have reversed their stand on any aspect of gun control have been more furiously vilified by the right-wing press than any Democrat in recent years.

There are, of course, instances where a politician who reverses himself ought to be criticized, especially when his decision is clearly not in the best interest of the people he represents or, indeed, the society he his sworn to protect and preserve. In general, though, a healthy democracy depends on the degree to which we welcome critical thinking in public office. And this necessarily embraces the concept of sober second thought. In fact, this cuts to the heart of the Senate of Canada’s signature mandate.

Do we want cohorts of yes men and women cluttering our assemblies? Lamentably, this is, all to often, our current predicament.

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Leveling the playing field


Speaking truth to power doesn’t guarantee that the ears of the privileged among us will open. But they will almost always burn – and in a delightful reddish hue, no less.

Charles Murray’s job is, thank goodness, to afflict the comfortable. In fact, as New Brunswick’s Ombudsman, he gets paid to swing away at provincial Crown corporations like WorkSafeNB, which is precisely what he did last week in a closed-door meeting with a blue-chip panel of experts which is reviewing the legislation that covers the Worker’s Compensation Act.

Specifically, according to Mr. Murray’s official website, “The Ombudsman is an independent officer of the Legislative Assembly who investigates complaints from the public about New Brunswick government services. Ombudsman offices are present throughout the Canadian provinces and their services are free”.

Indeed, “The New Brunswick Ombudsma’s Office has one central mission: to ensure that all New Brunswick citizens are treated with administrative fairness by government and its agencies. The Office strives to guarantee that individuals are served in a consistent, fair and reasonable manner by provincial governmental organizations.”

As for WorkSafe, Mr. Murray is blunt. “In a rather fundamental way,” he said in his presentation, which is posted to his website, “it is our strong impression that WorkSafe’s present calibration, if I may use that word, is proving less equitable to injured workers than it should.”

He elaborates: “For the worker, the injury represents a deep, life-changing, and fundamental challenge to their ability to live the sort of life any of us would wish, both for them and their families. It touches them very deeply. The injury is a blow to financial and emotional security for them and their loved ones. It also may, at the very time of this challenge, diminish their mobility, their ability to perform their daily tasks and hence their available time. The injury itself, the medication needed to treat it, and the stress and trauma of the accident and the uncertain future may also compromise their mental health.”

On the other hand, the company that employs the injured worker “faces no such existential crisis. Its challenge in finding a replacement worker or in reallocating duties may be more accurately described in terms of degrees of inconvenience.”

How has equity and fairness drifted over the years? Mr. Murray invites his audience to “look at the imbalance another way. Any government agency which interacts regularly with powerful, articulate and monied interests in the private sector risks over time being persuaded to shift its perspective towards that interest.”

In fact, he warns, “If regular self-examination is not conducted, agencies may find themselves what is termed ‘captured.’ They become so used to seeing the world in a certain manner that they lose the ability to see the invisible ways in which they are favouring one side of the balance they are tasked with ensuring.”

Naturally, WorkSafe’s president, Gerard Adams, is buying none of what Mr. Murray is selling. In a statement, reported by the Telegraph-Journal, he expressed his surprise and disappointment with the Ombudsman’s statements.

Still, is it dramatically difficult to believe that institutional inertia does, over time, favour the status quo, which, in turn, favours the powerful and the privileged?

This is not necessarily a deliberate attempt by individuals to favour one party over another. In a sense, the problem would be easier to fix if it were engineered that way.

This is the way of the organizational world; the banality of evil is, sadly and all too often, bureaucracy.

That’s why guys like Charles Murray still have jobs afflicting the comfortable.

Thank goodness.

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Speak up about New Brunswick, whomever you are


How delicious is the irony, how coarse and familiar are the political moats and keeps this government – indeed, every provincial regime since New Brunswick joined confederation some 148 years ago – dig and erect to protect their silos of interest.

Just as the Liberal regime of Brian Gallant invites citizens of this jurisdiction to suggest ways and means for improving the business and order of elective representation here, the premier, himself, chooses to take a broad swipe at two men who have done nothing but accept his request.

Are not provincial Ombudsman Charles Murray and Child and Youth Advocate Norman Bosse also citizens? And, in the course of their duties as officers of the Legislative Assembly, are they not, perhaps, better qualified than most to offer sound and cogent advice to the body politic?

What, indeed, disqualifies their opinions – apart from the fact that, as agents of civil administration, their utterances can, and do, embarrass the temporary overlords of the common weal?

A week ago, in the Saint John Telegraph-Journal, Messrs. Murray and Bosse issued a stern rebuke of the current and common practice of staying any and all investigations into potential conflicts of interest by elected members of the Assembly who have, for whichever reasons, ceased to sit as functioning MLAs.

In their joint commentary, the two officials point out that “when allegations of misconduct are made against our elected representatives, all New Brunswickers have an interest in the result. If an MLA has been unfairly accused, that Member deserves to be exonerated by a completed process, rather than have their reputation permanently marked by the accusation. Where the Member has erred, they deserve the censure appropriate to their misconduct and all Members can learn from the guidance the investigation provides.”

Moreover, they state, “Requiring investigations to end when a Member resigns or is defeated gives an incentive for trivial complaints and encourages delay and non-co-operation on the part of the investigated – a problem Conflict of Interest Commissioners past and present have noted in their reports.”

In fact, a simple legislative solution exists, to wit:

“A similar loophole for lawyers was closed in the statute governing the province’s Law Society decades ago with very little debate. If we allowed Doctors to end investigations about their conduct by resigning (we don’t), the Legislative Assembly could be expected to react with outrage. Why the double standard?”

Why, indeed?

But rather than embracing this worthy advice, Mr. Gallant decided to shoot from his hip, declaring, in effect, that none of this was Messrs. Murray’s and Bosse’s business. Responding to questions, the premier declared last week that he was “a bit surprised to see the ombudsman and the child and youth advocate speak about this.”

He continued: “I’m not 100 per cent sure exactly why they felt it was their place to make (a) comment. This is the conflict of interest commissioner’s role and we will certainly speak to him to see how we can improve the rules. . .I’m not sure how the child and youth advocate has a role to play when it comes to conflict of interest with politicians.”

Again, though, doesn’t everyone in this province have “a role to play when it comes to conflict of interest with politicians”?

Or should we all just shut up whenever an elected representative, accused of wrongdoing and under investigation, chooses to avoid a public roasting by resigning his post or refusing to re-offer?

More to the point, perhaps, is this: What is the role of this province’s legislative watchdogs, if not to point out when New Brunswick’s various emperors have somehow forgotten to wear their clothes?

Suggesting that a duly appointed ombudsman and child and youth advocate should stick to their knitting betrays a fundamental misapprehension of how a healthy democracy works.

In our system, justice, law and morality should never operate behind moats and keeps and silos, guarded by politicians and their intellectually corpulent operatives. 

All of this smacks of politics-as-usual, back-room smarminess, something that New Brunswick can no longer tolerate (if it ever could).

Bravo, watchdogs!

Keep biting the hands that swipe you.

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