OPE won’t cost anything new: minister

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James McLeod
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Opposition calls Office of Public Engagement a waste of money

Minister of Innovation, Business and Rural Development Keith Hutchings speaks at the St. John’s Board of Trade 2013 Business Development Summit at the Delta Hotel in January. — Photo by Keith Gosse/The Telegram

It’s been about three months since Premier Kathy Dunderdale shuffled her cabinet and created the “Office of Public Engagement” and since then, the government has been talking it up a fair bit.

Opposition politicians, though, say it’s nothing but a public-relations exercise, and it’s bound to cost taxpayers money.

Routine disclosure measures

Minister Keith Hutchings, who’s responsible for the new office, has been pretty busy. Shortly after the shuffle he announced new “routine disclosure” measures to make government documents public, including restaurant inspection reports, school repair and maintenance information and annual reports of professional health governing bodies.

In the past few weeks, the government has issued a cavalcade of news releases, and Hutchings has been to a series of events in his role as public engagement minister.

Amalgamation of services

The new office is getting a more prominent treatment in government communications, but Hutchings told The Telegram Friday that it’s really just bringing together a bunch of things that already existed in the government.

“These entities have existed already for some time,” he said. “All of these entities have been doing quite valuable work in terms of interaction on the ground in Newfoundland and Labrador in terms of volunteers and driving social and economic policy.”

The Office of Public Engagement — during the interview, Hutchings referred to it as “OPE” — brings together the Rural Secretariat, the Voluntary and Non-Profit Secretariat, the Youth Engagement office, the Strategic Partnership Initiative, and the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Office.

 

We likely won’t know until this spring when the government brings down its budget, but Hutchings said by folding those five entities together, it’ll actually save money, and the new office’s budget will be lower than the sum of the five bodies that have been lumped together.

“When we’re finished and I go through the budget process and bringing an estimate in a few months as part of the overall budget process, I do believe, yes, there will be efficiencies that will be achieved in the overall budget envelope,” he said. “We think there’s certainly collaboration and synergies that can be done more effectively and efficiently.”

Liberal MHA Jim Bennett doesn’t buy it.

“Every time government does anything, even if they have a mini-shuffle and have to change the letterhead, it costs money,” he said. “This is just an exercise in trying to look good. It doesn’t do anything of benefit for anybody.”

Bennett said the best thing the government could do to engage the public is to just provide the services that people want.

“I think the biggest make-work project in the province of Newfoundland and Labrador is the Tory government,” he said. “The office of public engagement is just the icing on the cake — it’s a total waste of money. Why doesn’t government just do something. If you just go do your job, people will figure out what you’re doing.”

New Democrat MHA George Murphy agreed with that assessment.

He said his assessment of the new initiative is that it’s serving the Tory government more than the public at large.

“They’re trying to promote themselves, I would say,” he said.

Murphy pointed to the Muskrat Falls debate that stretched back for the past two years, saying that for him, it typifies the way the government does public engagement.

“They only broadcast the message one way. They didn’t listen,” he said. “They didn’t engage the public to hear the public’s reaction to it, and they ignored most of what the arguments were that were being told to them. They stayed focused on the message.”

 

jmcleod@thetelegram.com

 Twitter: TelegramJames

 

Organizations: Office of Public Engagement, Rural Secretariat, Voluntary and Non-Profit Secretariat Strategic Partnership Initiative Privacy Office

Geographic location: Newfoundland and Labrador

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  • Harvey
    February 04, 2013 - 08:09

    Sometime ago the Dunderdale gov't announced their intention of cutting back on operating expenses everywhere. Since that, it seems a form of dementia has developed...e.g. the creation of OPE. Will this not add to the already bulging budget? I was a P.C. supporter...never again.

  • Public Puppets
    February 04, 2013 - 08:01

    This is a cheerleading exercise for the PC's to help boost a few polls. And when you hear the likes of steve kent and others from the department getting on with the same ole Boot Sauce like our governmnet is committed and have put this amount of money into something. Well you just can't even take them serious anymore on the serious issues. I'll put it this way; when an Mha like dan crummell gets on the news and says something thats legimate and resonable, like he did when he made comments about peter penashue, and after have to retract his statements because he couldn't follow the script from the governmnet, well we have major problems. Because when you can't think for yourself, or in this case, isn't allowed to, How can a MHA speak for the people that they represent when they aren't allow to have their own voice. The answer is that you can't. We're just left with someone in middle mangement waiting for their cheque, who really can't engage nothing.

  • robroy
    February 04, 2013 - 07:45

    I would love to know when the pc government are goin to start listening to the professionals and stop waisting moneyThe good thng is now thet there are more people being educvated here in the province the old way of voting is gone out the window Voting what mom or dad do is gone much like the torrries are

  • original townie
    February 04, 2013 - 07:39

    OPE.....isn't that the name of the new restaurants being operated by ex KFC franchise owner Marquis?