FREDERICTON – A former New Brunswick cabinet minister says the departure of Mike Ferguson won’t hurt the province’s battle to wrestle down its huge deficit and debt.
Ferguson is the deputy minister of finance and a man Norm Betts considers a friend. It has been widely reported that Ferguson has been tapped as Canada’s next auditor general, although the appointment has not been made official.
“Make no mistake, Finance will continue to present the cold hard facts, to the premier, cabinet and caucus,” said Betts, a minister of finance in Bernard Lord’s Conservative government from 1999 until 2001. “I have every confidence that somebody will rise to the challenge and that type of stern advice that finance departments deliver will not rise and fall on whether Mike Ferguson is there or not.”
Ferguson built his reputation for being a stickler as chief comptroller of the province from 2000 to 2005, followed by five years as New Brunswick’s auditor general. It was in that role that he came to the fore, releasing several stinging reports that lashed both Tory and Liberal governments. He was hired as the province’s deputy finance minister soon after David Alward’s Tory government was elected in the fall of 2010. One of his chief roles was to deliver advice to cabinet. His message was often about spending restraint and getting the province’s books in the black. The Alward government has committed to ridding the deficit, projected at $633 million this year, by the end of its mandate in 2014.
Betts said people had to put the potential loss of Ferguson in perspective.
“Let’s face it, six months ago everyone in Ottawa was saying, ‘Oh my God, what are we going to do to replace Sheila Fraser?” he said, referring to Canada’s former auditor general, who retired earlier this year after a decade on the job. “And out of the woodwork pops out Mike Ferguson. So a similar scenario could happen right here.”
University of New Brunswick economics professor David Murrell said it was important not to understate the role of a good deputy finance minister.
Murrell believes the leadership shown by the previous official who handled the role – John Mallory, whom Betts described as one of Ferguson’s protégés – helped New Brunswick develop one of the best departments of finance in the country.
Several years ago, the Fredericton professor analyzed the budgets of all 10 provinces for four consecutive years as part of a project for the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies.
“I noticed that the quality of the actual accounting work in New Brunswick was the best of all the provinces,” he said, adding that some provinces had made it a habit of presenting unclear numbers. “You had to pull hairs and go through a migraine to find the total deficit. They were less forthcoming. New Brunswick has a very clear budget presentation.”
That strong financial reporting, he believes, made New Brunswick more accountable, something he hopes won’t be lost. “We have a good reporting system that tells the media, professors and other budget-watchers and the public what’s going on.”
Betts, now a UNB business professor, agreed with his colleague that New Brunswick’s finance department has an excellent reputation.
He also spoke highly of Mallory, who retired in 2010 after serving under premiers Frank McKenna, Camille Thériault, Bernard Lord and Shawn Graham.
“I can remember my first day as minister of finance, John Mallory said to me, ‘Mr. Minister, my job is to give you the best advice and to keep you from going over a cliff. And if you don’t take my advice and go over the cliff, then my job is to pick up the pieces’.”
Without offering names, Betts said it was important for the province to select someone like Mallory or Ferguson for the deputy finance position if it is to become vacant, either inside or outside the department. That person should command the respect of his colleagues, he said.
“The deputy minister of finance is not a particularly popular person in the public service, when they sit around the table with their fellow deputy ministers who are more interested in spending money, all for good programs, sure, but it’s definitely a job where you get up every morning, look in the mirror and practice saying, ‘No.’ So you need someone who has the backbone to do that, the skill-set to do that and the wherewithal to deliver frank advice.”