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VIBERT: Rule changes render public accounts committee toothless

Jim Vibert
Jim Vibert - SaltWire Network

If anything, it’s worse than expected.

The Nova Scotia legislature’s public accounts committee — for decades the best hope opposition MLAs had to get behind the shiny façade, beyond the ubiquitous spin and shine some light into the government’s dark corners — isn’t even a shadow of its former self.

The public accounts committee that served Nova Scotians better than most will ever know has been eviscerated by Liberal backbenchers serving Stephen McNeil’s government.

Over the decades, the committee exposed corruption, political patronage, cronyism, as well as shady government deals, and identified countless weaknesses in public programs. So the McNeil government had it gutted and hung out to dry.

At Wednesday’s meeting, it was clear the Liberals have turned the committee into a useless, toothless, frivolous exercise, where old reports from the auditor general are rehashed with civil servants who, on cue, pledge to implement his recommendations with due rigor.

Even the senior bureaucrats testifying at Wednesday’s meeting appeared bored by the sheer banality of the exercise.

The committee is not merely redundant, it is repetitively redundant.

The auditor general issues reports, generally citing areas where government departments and agencies can improve their processes. Those departments and agencies invariably accept the auditor’s recommendations and, a couple of years later, he revisits the audits to determine how much progress has been made.

Now the sole purpose and function of the legislature’s public accounts committee is to examine those same reports and confirm that departments are working on the recommendations.

It’s mind-numbingly dull political theatre, where the content of the auditor’s report is recapped, followed by a preview of what he’ll eventually write in his progress report.

Prior to the Liberals’ rule changes, the committee could and did examine any issue or matter of public concern. Now it’s an echo chamber for the auditor general who, wittingly or unwittingly, helped make it so.

Last year, Auditor General Michael Pickup wrote to the committee complaining that it wasn’t following up on enough of his audits.

The Liberals jumped on the letter as an excuse to fundamentally alter committee rules so that now all it does is examine reports from the auditor.

The rule changes remove virtually all risk that the committee will uncover anything new that could embarrass the government.

At least seven previous provincial governments — stretching back to the 1980s, when the committee’s powers to hold the government accountable were strengthened — had the courage to live with that risk. Those previous Liberal, Tory and NDP governments were willing to stand up to whatever scrutiny the committee brought to bear.

The current government lacks that courage, or it knows it can’t withstand the scrutiny.

The Liberals try to dress up the rule changes as reflecting “best practices” gleaned from public accounts committees elsewhere in the country.

In several provinces, public accounts committees hardly function at all.

The Liberal argument also betrays an ignorance of the history and traditions of parliamentary government. Parliaments in the Westminster tradition — like Nova Scotia and Canada — share fundaments, but each legislature and parliament evolves traditions and practices that are unique. Nova Scotia’s law amendments committee, where citizens can express their views on legislation, is one such tradition unique to Nova Scotia.

So, too, was a public accounts committee with broad latitude to examine most aspects of government business. Legislators should have embraced that tradition and the added accountability it brought.

Instead, the Liberal majority gladly sacrificed both tradition and accountability in order to serve their partisan political objectives.

True to form, Wednesday the Liberals again used their majority to contain political damage. This time they blocked a motion to call the Freedom of Information and Privacy commissioner to testify at the next committee meeting, when the only agenda item is a privacy breach and the government’s mishandling of the fallout.

The auditor general will report on last spring’s information breach that shut down the government Freedom of Information web portal. Opposition MLAs naturally thought Freedom of Information and Privacy Commissioner Catherine Tully would add significant knowledge and insight on that matter.

Tully is an unflinching advocate of the public’s right to know and as such is frequently at odds with the McNeil government.

The Liberals blocked her appearance next week and into the foreseeable future.

Nova Scotia’s Liberals don’t seem to miss any opportunities to keep Nova Scotians in the dark.

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