June 13, 2024

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Conservative candidate didn’t register on time as travel nurse lobbyist

5 min read

A Fredericton-based lobbyist and federal Conservative election candidate didn’t promptly report his lobbying for a company supplying travel nurses to New Brunswick’s struggling health care system.

Brian Macdonald, a former Progressive Conservative MLA, represented Canadian Health Labs in early 2023, seeking to arrange meetings with senior government officials, including his former PC caucus colleague Premier Blaine Higgs.

New Brunswick’s Lobbyists’ Registration Act requires a lobbyist to submit a return to the provincial integrity commissioner “within 15 days after commencing performance of an undertaking on behalf of a client.”

However, Macdonald didn’t register as a lobbyist for the company until this year, after it made national headlines.

His registration is dated Feb. 26, 10 days after an investigative report in the Globe and Mail newspaper revealed detailed information about Canadian Health Labs’ contracts in New Brunswick and Newfoundland and Labrador.

three men and one woman stand on a wooden staircase smiling.
PC Party executive director Doug Williams, Brian Macdonald, Premier Blaine Higgs and party president Erika Hachey. Macdonald has hosted at least two PC Party fundraising events for Higgs at his Fredericton home. (Twitter)

Macdonald told CBC News that he tried to register when he was hired last year but the process required him to list all of the company’s contracts across Canada.

“Despite my repeated requests, CHL did not provide that information,” he said.

“When the Globe and Mail reported on CHL around Feb. 16, 2024, I contacted the ethics commissioner and filed a disclosure because I wanted to ensure that my involvement with CHL was on the public record.”

WATCH ‘Not designed to punish.’ Lobbyist won’t be fined:

MLA-turned-lobbyist missed 15-day deadline to register

Former MLA and federal Conservative election candidate Brian Macdonald didn’t register as travel-nurse lobbyist by legal deadline, but won’t face consequences.

Under the act, a lobbyist like Macdonald who violates the 15-day registration requirement can be charged with an offence and, if found guilty, fined up to $25,000.

Integrity commissioner Charles Murray said he did not contact prosecutors because Macdonald has registered properly for other clients, tried to register for Canadian Health Labs and eventually approached his office about the breach voluntarily, albeit months late.

The law is designed “to encourage transparency. It’s not designed to punish wrongdoing as much as it is to encourage [transparency],” Murray said.

“It’s a voluntary scheme in many ways. So our goal is always to inform and to educate and to correct errors, rather than to punish someone. … Better to register you late than not at all, and better to register you with what information you’re able to obtain than no information.”

Macdonald said in his public registration that the focus of his work for Canadian Health Labs was “continuing and expanding” the company’s business in New Brunswick.

In his statement to CBC News, he said no contracts resulted from his lobbying.

“I was never involved in the CHL contracting process,” he said.

Two agreements were signed when Canadian Health Labs was represented by another lobbyist, Jordan O’Brien, a former chief of staff to former Liberal premier Brian Gallant.

Two men sit at a restaurant table smiling.
Two agreements with Canadian Health Labs were signed when the company was represented by another lobbyist, Jordan O’Brien, a chief of staff to Brian Gallant, former Liberal premier. (Twitter)

O’Brien and Jacqueline Durnford, a colleague at the firm Porter O’Brien, registered as lobbyists for the company in May 2022.

“We undertook government affairs work for CHL beginning in December 2021 and ending in July 2022,” O’Brien said in a statement.

In its February investigation the Globe and Mail revealed that the company had three contracts with the Vitalité health authority, with a maximum total value of $158 million.

The company provided travel nurses at rates of up to $300 per hour to fill shortages in provincial hospitals.

A man with grey hair and abeard stands outside on a sidewalk.
Integrity commissioner Charles Murray says it’s better to register late ‘than not at all.’ (Ed Hunter/CBC)

The spending pushed Vitalité $98 million over budget in the 2023-24 fiscal year, an expense the health authority has defended as “unavoidable” given its staffing crisis.

Days after the Globe story broke, the deputy minister for the health department, Eric Beaulieu, defended the agreements to a committee of MLAs.

“It is not an aspect that either the department, the minister, or the RHAs wish to continue long term, but I will say it was necessary at the time they were signed,” he said.

Beaulieu said the department knew about the first contract with Vitalité when it was signed on July 29, 2022, but learned after the fact of the other two, which were dated Nov. 16, 2022, and Dec. 2, 2022.

The Department of Social Development also used Canadian Health Labs for a contract for more than $2 million to provide nurses for long-term care facilities from February to May 2022.

The Social Development contract and the first of the three Vitalité contracts were signed while O’Brien was representing the company.

“It wouldn’t be my place to speak to details so I would defer to my former client in that regard,” O’Brien said in his statement.

Interview request denied

Canadian Health Labs turned down a request to interview CEO Bill Hennessey and did not respond to questions about its use of lobbyists or how it chose them.

“When CHL is awarded a contract, it is a result of its track record of helping Canadians access quality healthcare by solving staffing shortages,” the company said in a written statement.

The auditor-general is now examining the contracts.

In a statement, government spokesperson Bruce Macfarlane confirmed that O’Brien played a role in “facilitating” contracts, while Macdonald’s lobbying did not lead to new agreements.

Higgs said in March that the contracts were a situation “where it seems like we could have got better value.”

In his registration, Macdonald listed Higgs among the officials that he intended to lobby.

The premier’s spokesperson, Nicolle Carlin, said Higgs never met with Macdonald about CHL and never met with anyone from the company.

Macdonald also listed Health Minister Bruce Fitch, Finance Minister Ernie Steeves, then-local government minister Daniel Allain, as well as Beaulieu, clerk of the executive council Cheryl Hansen and Higgs’s then deputy chief of staff Paul D’Astous.

Macdonald was a PC MLA from 2010 to 2018, serving with Higgs and Fitch. 

No law against it

There is no law against a former politician lobbying former colleagues on behalf of clients, as long as they observe a 12-month “cooling off” period after leaving office and register publicly. 

The website for his lobbying company, Waterloo Strategies, includes a photo of him with Higgs, PC MLA Jeff Carr, former MLA Jody Carr and two other people. 

Macdonald has hosted at least two PC Party fundraising events for Higgs at his Fredericton home and donated a total of $1,680 to the provincial party from 2021 to 2023.

He was nominated as the Conservative Party of Canada candidate for Fredericton earlier this year.

In March, federal Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre called corporate lobbyists “utterly useless,” but CBC News recently revealed that dozens of federally registered lobbyists attended fundraisers with him.

O’Brien and Durnford did not earn commissions on the value of the contracts signed by Canadian Health Labs.

They also represented the company in Newfoundland and Labrador, where the firm signed several contracts with health authorities.


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