Seniors' Champion Created None Too Soon

By David Coon

With a simple tweak to the legislative mandate of the Child and Youth Advocate, the 148,000 seniors in our province now have their own champion, and those responsibilities will include adults in care as well.

The Child, Youth and Seniors Advocate is an independent officer of the Legislative Assembly, just like the Auditor General. The position is currently held by Norm Bossé, the lawyer brother of Juno-award winning FHS music teacher, Don Bossé.

Norm Bossé and his staff have gained international accolades for principled and effective advocacy on behalf of children and youth in New Brunswick. In fact, the reputation of his office is such that at least one of his staff moved to New Brunswick so they could have the opportunity to work with our Child and Youth Advocate. I have no doubt that under his leadership, given a sufficient budget, Mr. Bossé will serve seniors and adults in care equally well.

Like all Legislative Officers, the Child, Youth and Seniors Advocate reports to the Legislative Assembly, not to a cabinet minister or to the Premier, ensuring he is free to act without political interference.

The one constraint the Premier and cabinet can place on legislative officers is financial. It is the Legislative Administration Committee's responsibility to propose the budgets of legislative officers to the Legislature for approval. However, if there is a majority government in power, and it chooses to whip its committee members into carrying out its wishes, their majority membership on the committee can be used to constrain the activities of legislative officers.

For example, our Auditor General's budget is similar in size to that of PEI's Auditor General, despite being responsible for overseeing a far larger provincial budget and many more departments and Crown Corporations. Compared to the budget for Nova Scotia's Auditor General, on a proportional basis, our AG comes up a million dollars short. Both the Liberals, and the Tories before them, have managed to short-sheet her budget. In fact, the work of most of our Legislative Officers is under-budgeted to one degree or another.

Perhaps if the work of the Legislative Administration Committee was carried out in public, rather than behind closed doors, the budgetary needs of our legislative officers might be better served.

With the brand new responsibility to advocate for seniors and adults in care, it is too early to know with any precision what additional moneys the Child, Youth and Seniors Advocate will require. It's not even clear what the new mandate will include, as this was not spelled out in legislation. However, as a member of the Legislative Administration Committee I strongly advocated for an initial budget that would get things up and running quickly.

Based on the current mandate for children and youth, seniors and adults in care should expect the Advocate for Child, Youth and Seniors will be both an advocate to government on their behalf and an investigator of complaints. I would expect the office of the advocate will identify gaps in services, conduct research into areas impacting seniors, provide policy advice, and propose legislative changes. For concerns and complaints, I would expect the Seniors' Advocate will investigate, assist and support seniors, adults in care, and their families to seek resolution.

As part of the work on behalf of children and youth, the Child and Youth Advocate has published a regular State of the Child Report with recommendations to government. The office has also published special reports on priority concerns. With an adequate budget, similar could be done on behalf of seniors and adults in care.

Mr. Bossé has been working diligently to flesh out his mandate. In fact, he will be sitting down with my Seniors Round Table in the near future, to hear their thoughts on what his mandate should include.

The decision by the Gallant government to create a champion for seniors is a timely one, with last week's release of the Aging Strategy for New Brunswick. Perhaps this will provide a framework for the Seniors' Advocate to work from.

The needs are great - from social isolation to the lack of access to early diagnosis of dementia, to the paucity of long-term care services. From a young age, we are taught to respect our elders. This needs to be mirrored in the programs and services provided by our provincial and municipal governments.

David Coon is the MLA for Fredericton-South and the Leader of the Green Party of New Brunswick.