The legislature’s Public Accounts Committee has been, for decades, the last best place in Nova Scotia to find responsible government, warts and all.
That ended Wednesday, at least for that one day, but that it ended at all signals a threat to the essential role of the opposition to hold the provincial government accountable.
The threat comes from the Liberal government itself, which used its majority to limit the committee’s scope in order to hide some of those warts.
Led by the committee’s chair, Allan MacMaster (PC-Inverness) opposition MLAs used the only tool still available to them to protest the new restrictions on their ability to scrutinize the government. They walked out, and at public accounts this week Nova Scotia became a one-party state.
The result was a dull, banal committee meeting, and for Nova Scotians who want to know how Stephen McNeil’s government uses or abuses their tax dollars, it was an utterly useless exercise. In other words, just the way the government drew it up.
Before vacating the chair, MacMaster said the government’s action sends a clear message to Nova Scotians who disagree with it. “You don’t matter,” adding that’s why so many Nova Scotians choose not to vote.
He said the government is intent on silencing all voices of dissent and is willing to destroy the committee’s ability to deal with matters of public interest in a timely way to silence those voices.
Halifax Needham New Democrat Lisa Roberts said the opposition is feeling what Nova Scotian teachers, public sector unions, and others have felt from the McNeil government.
That’s the frustration of being bullied into submission. But on Wednesday the Conservative and NDP opposition were unwilling to submit.
They won’t however, “throw the baby out with the bathwater,” as Roberts said, and will return to the committee next week, as they should.
Although its reach has been severely limited, the committee still serves an important oversight function. But that oversight is now limited to the choices made by the auditor general, who as Premier McNeil famously pointed out last year, wasn’t elected by anyone.
Government members on the committee successfully pushed through the rule change last week to restrict the committee’s agenda to only those matters subject to an audit by the auditor general.
The intent of that rule change – upheld this week by House Speaker Kevin Murphy – is thinly disguised but abundantly clear.
By limiting the committee’s agenda to matters the auditor has already reported, the government is also limiting its political damage to those same subjects. The committee will no longer be able to question departments and organizations across the government, unless and until they are the subject of an audit.
For example, MacMaster noted it was by the public accounts committee questioning officials of the Health Department, that Nova Scotians learned changes to pharmacare would mean significant increases in some premiums, and the government was forced to back down. Pharmacare had not been the subject of an audit.
Government members are leaning on a letter Auditor General Michael Pickup sent to the committee earlier this year to support their rule change. Pickup complained that the committee was not reviewing more of his audits with the departments and agencies that were the subjects of those audits.
But as MacMaster pointed out, those audits are months in the making and departments almost invariably accept the auditor general’s recommendations. The committee, before the rule change, had the ability to act on matters in a more timely manner. That ability is lost.
A 2010 report on parliamentary oversight, prepared for the Canadian Council of Public Accounts Committees notes PA committees are “unique creatures, often possessing their own political culture.”
Since John Buchanan’s provincial government in the 1980s – battling a politically-toxic reputation for cronyism and lack of accountability – agreed to have an opposition MLA chair the committee, the political culture of Nova Scotia’s public accounts committee has been its unique ability to look in the government’s dark corners.
Without regard for that tradition, the McNeil government has turned back time to a darker period in Nova Scotia’s political history, and all but neutered Nova Scotia’s last best hope of holding government to account, beyond the ballot box.
Jim Vibert, a journalist and writer for longer than he cares to admit, consulted or worked for five Nova Scotia governments. He now keeps a close and critical eye on provincial and regional powers.