Many New Brunswickers have no doubt heard at least some of the details surrounding the recent court case involving civil servant Peter Andrews. Mr. Andrews, the executive director of corporate services in the provincial Department of Agriculture, Aquaculture and Fisheries, is accused of interfering with an enforcement action by the Department against Donat Robichaud, who just happens to be the brother of Deputy Premier and Natural Resources Minister Paul Robichaud.
Of course, the court case is newsworthy for just that reason – accusations of political favoritism. I have no idea if Mr. Andrews is guilty or not, nor do I think much of the various political actors trying to make hay out of this issue. Perhaps there was political interference, perhaps not – I will leave it to the court to make that decision. The testimony, however, certainly suggests that there is a reluctance among Departments to enforce the law. My concern therefore lays in the details surrounding the accusations and their implications with respect to the enforcement of regulations.
Regulations are established to ensure that private individuals and businesses act within rules set up by the public sector, in order to protect the public and the interests of the public. If those regulations are not respected, and then not enforced, is the public interest being protected? Is the Department doing its job? Are regulations just a public relations exercise designed to ease our minds while individuals do as they please? The resources in question here (fisheries) are public resources and are supposed to be managed in a sustainable manner, so that future generations can also get economic value from those resources. Let’s be clear here: this is not about tourism, or ‘natural beauty’, it is about getting long-term economic benefits from a resource. That means minimizing damage from current practices and safeguarding the resource for future use.
Apparently this Department (and, I fear, several others) is biased towards the short-term interests of the few against the long-term interests of the public. To quote from a CBC report “ “Taking a producer to court was a “last resort”, he (Andrews) said, citing a policy clause about working with producers on compliance rather than prosecuting”. In other words, we may have regulations but we are prepared to overlook enforcement because Department policy favors those private interests over the public interest.
In this particular case, Donat Robichaud is an oyster fisherman who was caught setting traps outside of the zone designated for his business in 2004. That complaint was ‘resolved’ by sending him a letter, according to articles in the press. There were further complaints in 2008, when another letter was sent, and again in 2009 and 2010. Department staff finally decided to do something other than send letters and Robichaud was eventually charged and pleaded guilty in April 2012 to one charge. He was ordered to pay a $480 fine and a 20 per cent victim surcharge. So after several times being caught in the act this person was given a small fine and sent on his way. Has he received sufficient disincentive to change his way? Seems unlikely. How many other fisherman are acting in contempt of the law? What are the long-term consequences for the economic value of those natural resources?
In my opinion this case exposes the hypocrisy of successive provincial governments and their attitudes towards natural resource development. Regulations to maximize the sustainability of renewable resources are put in place as a sop to the public, but enforcement is uneven and uncertain. As the regulations themselves are usually compromises worked out among various stakeholders, the public should certainly be concerned that their interests are not being protected by public agencies.
We have seen in recent days a new forestry policy announced by the current provincial government and, a few months previously, a new set of ‘rules’ for the shale gas industry. How much faith can citizens place in regulations given what has been revealed in this court case? I understand that governments are desperate to create jobs and it is fine to put in place development policies to that end. However, enforcement of regulations needs to be done in a manner separate from those development goals. We need either separate agencies for regulation enforcement, or we need a stricter separation of duties within Departments to ensure that enforcement occurs in a timely manner that protects the public interest.by