Enjoy it while it lasts

March 4, 2011 4:46 PM

MLAs are asking tough questions of civil servants and Crown corporation heads. Budget documents are getting real scrutiny. There is actually a slight divergence between the executive and legislative branches of government over what constitutes a secret document.

Welcome to a very brief, magical moment in which legislative committees function the way they should.

The last few weeks have seen Progressive Conservative MLAs use the Crown Corporations and Public Accounts committees to actually investigate the operations of NB Power, Business New Brunswick, the Regional Development Corporation, and other government entities. Oversight, accountability and transparency have broken out at the legislature.

Enjoy it while it lasts.

In our dysfunctional, top-down legislative system, these committees are normally just another partisan tool. As a general rule, the MLAs from the government side use the hearings to make the government look good, while the opposition members set out to conduct a proper grilling. But in a minority position on the commitees, the opposition can't get much grilling done: it doesn't have the votes.

There's one exception to this pattern, and it comes when there's a change in government. Because the committees review the previous year (or years, when there's a backlog) of a department's, Crown corporation's, or agency's activities, we are now witnessing the freshly-installed PC majority scrutinizing fiscal 2008-09 and 2009-10, two years of Liberal rule.

The actual process has been uneven. When NB Power appeared, the Tories weren't terribly effective: they were all over the proposed sale to Hydro-Quebec, but they didn't seem able to follow a line of questioning to its logical conclusion. They were more interested in tossing out every cheap shot they could make that was embarassing to the Liberals (and there were many) but seemed more interested in scoring partisan points than really finding things out.

There were better moments. Dorothy Shephard, the rookie PC MLA from Saint John-Lancaster, did an admirable job building a narrative about the Atcon loan guarantee fiasco. She used neutral, open-ended questions to gather information. (She later told me she learned this method, popular among journalists, after dealing with indecisive customers at her retail store in Saint John.)

The key moment came when Shephard asked Business New Brunswick to reveal whether it had advised in favour of, or against, the $50-million loan guarantee. The goal is partisan: the PCs want to put on the record what everyone suspects - that elected politicians overruled advice and okayed the risky investment despite warnings.

When BNB refused to answer, the PCs introduced a motion, supported by the Liberals, to compel a response. In effect, they are confronting their own government over whether the executive or legislative branch is supreme. (The key point seems to be whether the advice was subject to cabinet confidentiality laws. If it is, that trumps the committee's powers. If it isn't, BNB should have to answer.)

In the realm of the New Brunswick legislature, where excessive party discipline often stifles real debate, this is pretty thrilling stuff. But like I said above, enjoy it while it lasts. BNB Minister Paul Robichaud can end this legal showdown today by siding with his PC caucusmates and ordering the release of the information. It's just as likely he'll fear a precedent and refuse. Then we'll see if this aggressive committee turns docile.

And by this time next year, these committees will be scrutinizing the first year of David Alward's PC government. We can expect a return to form: the Tories will be looking to polish Alward's image, while the opposition Liberals will switch from defending their record to attacking the PCs. This momentary flash of genuine oversight, of legislative committees functioning the way they were designed to function, will seem like a distant memory.
- Jacques Poitras

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