Feds say public consultations marred by low turnout, poor planning, other flaws
Finance Minister Bill Morneau attends a breakfast event co-hosted by the Canadian Club and the Empire Club in Toronto, on Thursday, March 1, 2018. Internal federal documents show the Liberal government has been analyzing flaws in its extensive public engagement efforts and last year's headaches around Morneau's controversial tax proposals are a top case study. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Christopher Katsarov
Andy Blatchford, The Canadian Press
Published Sunday, October 28, 2018 1:27PM EDT
OTTAWA -- The Trudeau government's analysis of its extensive public consultation efforts has uncovered some flaws -- and last year's disastrous roll out of Finance Minister Bill Morneau's controversial small business tax proposals is Exhibit A, internal documents show.
Ottawa has been dissecting its public outreach exercises in order to find challenges and lessons learned following the launch of hundreds of consultations over the Liberals' first two years in office, according to briefing materials obtained by The Canadian Press under the Access to Information Act.
The paperwork offers a look at Ottawa's self-assessment at a time when, as one of the documents asserts, "public servants and elected officials have been consulting Canadians at an unprecedented scale." At the half-way mark of the Liberals' four-year mandate, 381 public consultations had been either completed, launched or planned, the document says.
The February 2018 documents list a number of concerns faced by many departments when it comes to public consultations.
They include low turnouts created by inadequate planning, a focus on quantity over quality and stakeholder fatigue among Indigenous peoples that "may have caused more harm than good."
The briefing package, created for deputy ministers ahead of a meeting last February on the matter, also presented case studies of four consultations -- on planned accessibility legislation, electoral reform, national security and Morneau's tax proposals for private corporations.
A briefing note in the package, prepared for deputy finance minister Paul Rochon, provided a summary of the reaction to Morneau's tax-proposal consultation.
"This consultation received 'backlash' from stakeholders and negative media coverage," said the "secret" memo to Rochon.
"This negative media coverage led to Opposition criticisms, parliamentary debates on the merits of the tax changes and criticism of both how the tax changes were communicated during the consultation period, as well as personal criticisms of the minister."
Morneau came under fire in the weeks after he announced tax proposals in July 2017. A vocal group of opponents spent months attacking the plan and insisted it would hurt the very middle class the Trudeau government had long claimed to be trying to help.
Morneau argued the proposals were designed to stop wealthy owners of private corporations from unfairly taking advantage of the system.
But the uproar eventually forced him to tweak and even back away from some elements of his reforms after the conclusion of the 75-day consultation period. The adjustments to the original plan meant only the top three per cent of the wealthiest owners of private corporations would pay more taxes.
The Finance Department examined the shortcomings of the plan's roll out in the memo to Rochon.
It zeroed in on the criticism the consultation quickly attracted over the timing of the launch -- in the dead of summer.
Things got worse from there, the analysis said.
The proposals, the document argued, initially received favourable media coverage, but eventually "became a topic of conversation during the summer recess where misinformation was propagated, causing dissent to grow in a vacuum and balloon by late summer."
The whole experience taught the government lessons, the memo said.
"Most notably the need to more rapidly adjust communications strategies and messaging to effectively address misconceptions, especially those that are widely and actively diffused through well-funded public relations campaigns," it said.
The assessment also said intense opposition to the plan was fuelled, in part, by "the purposeful circulation of misinformation about the scope of the impact of the tax changes."
The government, the memo added, had created "contingency scenarios, taking into account various stakeholders" ahead of the launch. But there was a lag in the execution, the memo said, likely caused by the shortage of government officials available in the middle of the summer to reinforce messaging and deal with misconceptions.
The government's ability to "get its message out" was further weakened by the complexity of the proposed tax changes themselves, the document said.
Among the memo's suggestions, it said the summertime release could have been examined more carefully, the roll out should have been done in phases and outreach with key stakeholders should have been done before, during and after the consultation.
Additional contingency scenarios could have been created, too, it said.
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