Liberals block public debate on privacy breach

Members of the Liberal government blocked attempts on Wednesday to call Internal Services Department officials to testify about the breach of the freedom-of-information website in front of a public committee.

MLAs use majority to vote against calling Internal Services before public accounts

The breach of the province's freedom-of-information portal will not be discussed before the public accounts committee after Liberal MLAs voted against doing so. (Robert Short/CBC)

Members of the Liberal government blocked attempts on Wednesday to call Internal Services Department officials to testify about the breach of the freedom-of-information website in front of a public committee.

Following the weekly scheduled hearing of the legislature's public accounts committee, MLAs were asked to approve a list of seven topics for future debate. One of those was to have officials from the Internal Services Department testify about supplier contracts related to the breach of the freedom-of-information portal.

That didn't sit well with Liberals MLAs, who hold a majority on the committee. Clare-Digby MLA Gordon Wilson called it "preemptive" to discuss the matter until Auditor General Michael Pickup completes his work on the matter.

Pickup agreed earlier this week to get involved at the request of Internal Services Minister Patricia Arab. A report from his office in 2016 flagged concerns about the security of government websites using similar software to what was eventually employed on the FOI portal; only two of his six recommendations from that report have been completed.

A subcommittee of public accounts agreed to seven topics, including the breach, last Wednesday, but Arab's letter was only sent to Pickup two days later, on Friday.

Using AG as a shield

The five Liberal members of the committee — Wilson, Suzanne Lohnes-Croft, Ben Jessome, Brendan Maguire and Hugh MacKay — all voted down the subject. PC MLA and committee member Tim Houston disagreed with Wilson's logic, noting the auditor general operates separately from the public accounts committee.

"This committee is not beholden to the auditor general's schedule."

Following the meeting, Houston told reporters it appears the government is using the auditor general as a shield from more public scrutiny on a matter that's dogged them relentlessly.

'Not a good precedent'

New Democrat MLA Dave Wilson noted Pickup's office isn't doing a full audit on the matter, but rather providing assistive services to work that was already underway.

Houston pointed to the Liberal caucus previously using its majority to prevent discussion of the expense scandal at the IWK Health Centre last fall, citing at that time the auditor general's involvement. But Houston noted Pickup's work on that file continues, with no end date yet, and the public is still left with questions.

"That's not a good precedent for this committee," he said.

"I think this committee should be focused on matters of importance to Nova Scotians irrespective of who else is focused on them."

The committee ultimately approved future topics including: funding for sexual violence support; rural internet service; the action plan for aging population; funding for home care; immigration programs; and rural health-care delivery.

About the Author

Michael Gorman

Reporter

Michael Gorman is a reporter in Nova Scotia who covers Province House, rural communities, and everything in between. Contact him with story ideas at michael.gorman@cbc.ca

With files from Jean Laroche