Premier questions AG's work after report critical of health reform
'Do you think the auditor needed to tell me that we had a shortage of family doctors?' McNeil asks
Just 24 hours after his government officially accepted all the observations and recommendations made by Nova Scotia's auditor general in his latest report, Premier Stephen McNeil is questioning what Michael Pickup and his office should be examining.
Speaking to reporters following a regular cabinet meeting, McNeil said he was surprised the AG's office would comment on the province's ongoing shortage of family doctors and be critical of his government's strategy to communicate the plans to try to resolve the issue.
"Do you think the auditor needed to tell me that we had a shortage of family doctors?" he said. "Do you think the issue hasn't been raised by Nova Scotians?
"What the auditor general, in my view, responsibility is to ensure that taxpayers' dollars are being spent appropriately. Nova Scotians pass judgment on how I communicate with them."
Money matters only, please
Asked repeatedly if he felt Pickup and his office had overstepped their authority or crossed a line, McNeil would not level a specific accusation beyond the suggestion that the office should not concern itself with anything beyond money matters.
"Public policy is the right of those who sit in the House of Assembly," said McNeil. "It is then up to the public of Nova Scotia to pass judgment. That's why we have this thing called a general election."
The premier went on the suggest how Pickup might avail himself of the right to comment beyond money matters.
"If he chooses and wants to do public policy, there are 51 ridings for him to run in — potentially more. He has a job to do to ensure that the finances are being spent appropriately, but public policy is actually for the people who are elected across the street."
Opposition leaders defend AG
Opposition leaders were quick to come to the defence of the auditor general.
PC Leader Jamie Baillie said Pickup and his office had every right to examine the government's actions as they relate to the doctor shortage and the plans to fix the problem.
"It's the AG's job to call it like he sees it. Whether he touched a nerve or not is not the point," he told reporters. "The AG is either right that there's a crisis in health care or he is not right. I would much rather the premier spend his time getting the health-care system right than telling the AG to shut up."
NDP Leader Gary Burrill offered a sharp and succinct rebuke of McNeil's suggestion the AG get himself elected for the right to comment on policy.
"I think this is pompous and high-handed and out of line."
The premier also suggested Pickup was in for a rough ride from Liberal backbenchers who sit on the legislature's public accounts committee. The AG is scheduled to appear before the committee to answer questions about this report and its conclusions.
"I look forward to seeing him before public accounts next week. Our members will be prepared to … I'm looking forward to getting some background on the decisions that he's made and the comments that he made."
McNeil admitted he had not complained directly to the AG's office.
Auditor general responds
For his part, Pickup seemed to take the premier's criticism in stride.
"I guess he can say what he likes to say," Pickup told CBC News, calling his latest report on health care a routine performance audit.
"I'm 150 per cent comfortable that the work we're doing lies within the mandate of the office of the auditor general," he said. "Performance audits by their nature look at how well things are being implemented, how well things are being done."
Pickup said his office had been in touch with the Department of Health and the Nova Scotia Health Authority starting last fall and throughout the audit and no one had ever questioned the work underway.
Asked if he was worried about getting a rough ride when he appears before the committee next week, Pickup chuckled.
"I look forward to explaining to folks on the public accounts committee what the conclusions mean and what the recommendations mean."