Kangaroo court

Wednesday, Nov. 5: “We’ve been impressed by your recent columns on auto insurance in the Post,” the insurance industry’s public affairs rep tells me over the phone. “Would you be willing to go to Fredericton next week and offer your views at a luncheon?” Thus began my adventure into the zany workings of lawmaking in New Brunswick.

I replied as I always do when given a compliment and offered a speaking engagement. I thanked her for the former and quoted my fee for the latter. She accepted. I then sought to make my trip to New Brunswick more useful to Consumer Policy Institute, a non-profit group I head, by trying to make a difference at government hearings that were about to conclude.

My columns on automobile insurance systems around the world, and which ones best deliver safety and value for consumers, had started a month earlier. I knew New Brunswick’s debate would have national significance. I asked the rep to try to arrange a long shot: a last-minute appearance before the committee, if necessary by ceding an insurance industry time slot to me.

She paused. “You wouldn’t be allowed to make your points,” she cautioned. “The mandate of the committee is limited to choosing between different forms of public insurance.” I requested that she try.

Monday, Nov. 10: Emelie Hubert, the researcher for New Brunswick’s select committee on public automobile insurance, phones me to discuss a possible appearance. “Will you have anything fresh to say,” she asks, explaining that she is exasperated by the tiresome presentations that the committee has had to endure from insurance industry representatives. I assure her that my presentation will be unlike anything the committee had heard. She schedules me to appear at 5 p.m. Wednesday, advises me on the weather, and suggests I bring walking shoes to take advantage of the city’s trails. Emelie (by now we are on a first-name basis) asks no other question about my presentation.

Wednesday, Nov. 12, 11 a.m.: I introduce myself to Emelie in the lobby of the Sheraton Fredericton, the site of both the luncheon and the hearings. She updates me on the many preposterous “scare-mongering” arguments that numerous presenters have made against a government takeover of the auto insurance industry. After several minutes of describing these people to me as jerks, it dawns on me for the first time that Emelie must think I am, like her, committed to public automobile insurance. Although she is the key staffer and the author of the committee’s final report, she somehow had missed my columns, which unambiguously opposed public auto insurance. I turn to her and set her straight. Emelie’s face blanches. I assure her that I will limit my remarks to public auto insurance and hand her an advance copy of my presentation, to let her see for herself. It describes me, my organization and the insurance industry’s role in financing my trip to New Brunswick.

1:30 p.m.: By now, I have given my luncheon address, followed by a flurry of media interviews, most of them with New Brunswick newspapers, radio and TV stations. The interviews occur outside the luncheon ballroom, in the hall that also serves an adjacent ballroom hosting the hearings. The reporters delve into why I believe public auto insurance increases the fatality rate and harms consumers. The CBC-TV reporter, who arrives late, is an exception. She cares only about scandal – the expense to which the insurance industry went to fly me to Fredericton; the insurance industry’s self-interest in bringing a critic of public auto insurance. She then asks me to walk up to several people standing in the hall 15 feet or so away, and engage them in conversation. I ask her why. She explains that she wants to end the interview with film footage of me “with my colleagues in the insurance industry.” I decline her invitation – the people she was pointing to were perfect strangers to me. Several minutes later her cameraman approaches me sheepishly, and asks me to please co-operate by staging the conversation. It won’t take long, he indicates. I decline again.

2 p.m.: Emelie confronts me, furious. “You deceived me,” she declares. Perplexed, I ask how. I discover that she had expected me to identify myself as an opponent of public auto insurance in asking to appear at the hearing. “But we’re honourable,” she states. “We’ll let you speak anyway.”

3 p.m.: After returning from a CBC-radio studio interview, a reporter at the Sheraton tells me that the committee’s chair, Elizabeth Weir, may bar me from appearing. In later CBC news reports, I will discover that she criticized me for misleading her committee by not volunteering that insurers had paid my way, even though the application form for presenters asks nothing about funding, and neither did Emelie.

5:30 p.m.: It is finally time for me to appear. The genial deputy chair, who had been running the afternoon’s proceedings, gives way to Ms. Weir, who returns to the hearing room to take custody of me. She is less genial. Minutes earlier, she had ordered the sole cameraman remaining in the hearing – a freelancer working for the insurance industry – to leave. He had filmed that day’s previous presentations, including MADD, the NDP and the New Brunswick Law Society. She would not allow a visual or audio record of what would follow.

All other presenters had been allowed to make their comments uninterrupted, following which they had all been questioned by committee members. Ms. Weir interrupted me almost from the start, and repeatedly, on the pretext that my analysis did not have New Brunswick data. When I finished my presentation, I invited questions. From the expression on Ms. Weir’s face, I knew none would be forthcoming. She quickly panned the committee members to her left, then her right. “No questions,” she smiled. “The meeting is adjourned.”

This had been my first direct taste of New Brunswick-style democracy. The freelance cameraman – a veteran BBC and CBC Newsworld International journalist who had covered Third World wars, natural disasters, corrupt administrators and tin-pot dictators, took New Brunswick in his stride. As he had done in other places, at other times, when ordered by local authorities to stop filming, he slowly gathered his equipment and packed it away, all the while letting the camera roll.

Lawrence Solomon, Executive Director of Urban Renaissance Institute and Energy Probe, November 15, 2003

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