Negotiate with a purpose 

Deals21 July 2018

Helping and supporting those individuals at the negotiating table navigate complex issues, understand the compromises that need to be made, and take the strong positions required when necessary to ensure long-term sustainability is key to our success.

Businesses have long marveled at the general incompetence of government when a deal is being negotiated. This should not come as any surprise since as politicians we generally are not elected because of any proficiency in deal making especially as it would relate to a better economic outcome.

Governments are often at a severe disadvantage when negotiating deals. This situation applies to both labor and commercial negotiations. First of all, the government’s main priority is to avoid negative publicity, and to create positive headlines. New jobs, labour contract signed, etc.

Governments are also vulnerable to the timing of negotiations in relation to the next election. They do not want to go into an election with an outstanding issue in the media. Parties on the other side of the table know this timetable and exploit it to the fullest.

Thirdly, government negotiators are often people who have never before been asked to negotiate a deal. Their focus is often too narrow, thus maximum value for the government is not obtained.

My first exposure to the government negotiation process was when I was Minister of Human Resources. I was advised in the morning that I would be meeting with union officials in the afternoon to formally sign the agreements. I was to do so without any knowledge of what had been agreed to. There wasn’t any time for a briefing and it didn’t matter anyway since the deal had already been made. The signing was just a formality.

I went along with this traditional practice, but afterwards met with the deputy minister and requested that I never be placed in that position again. I told her, that I would refuse to participate without knowing all the details. Additionally, I requested to be briefed on the issues and positions prior to the start of the negotiations, so we would have alignment of our objectives and would more clearly understand the outcome.

Negotiating effectively in all situations is a skill that is gained through experience. The right outcome is one where both parties conduct themselves in a fair and reasonable manner, and leave the table shaking hands, because a fair agreement has been reached. I was at the table during pension reform negotiations. Our result was a sustainable pension reform agreement that is fair for employees and taxpayers. It is a model that was provided to and adopted by municipalities throughout the province, most notably in Saint John. It is rated as one of the top pension reform models in North America.

Blaine Higgs