Nova Scotia

AG says legislature committee changes weren't his request

Auditor General Michael Pickup says it’s up to committees of the legislature to decide what topics they discuss, but it was never his view that the once-powerful public accounts committee should only focus on his reports.

A year after changes to the public accounts committee, MLAs still debate their merits

Nova Scotia Auditor General Michael Pickup says he hopes MLAs fully explore concerns raised in his reports. (Robert Short/CBC)

Auditor General Michael Pickup says it's up to committees of the legislature to decide what topics they discuss, but it was never his view that the once-powerful public accounts committee should only focus on his reports.

In September of 2018, Liberal members of the committee used their majority to change its structure so the committee would only discuss topics covered in Pickup's reports. The committee was also reduced from meeting several dozen times a year to just once a month.

At the time he proposed the change, now Environment Minister Gordon Wilson noted it would help address a concern from Pickup that his office's reports weren't always called in a timely fashion, if at all, for debate.

"I think that's a very fair comment that was made that we do not fully and openly bring all of our audit reports from the AG here," Wilson said at the time.

'Makes government more accountable'

Although opposition MLAs suggested the government was making the move to neuter a committee that long caused it headaches and negative headlines,  Premier Stephen McNeil disputed that view at the time.

McNeil pointed to the government's decision to create a standing committee dedicated to health as further proof his government wasn't looking to duck difficult issues and was committed to transparency.

"It makes government more accountable to the public," he told reporters at the time.

"We don't get to determine what the auditor general says or does. What we're saying is let's use the public accounts committee for that" and the health committee for health-related issues.

During a press conference Tuesday to discuss his most recent report, Pickup was asked whether he thought the current format of the public accounts committee inhibits the ability of MLAs to fully explore concerns raised in his reports, as he encourages them to do.

Dartmouth North MLA Susan LeBlanc is one of the NDP representatives on the public accounts committee. (Michael Gorman/CBC)

Pickup said it's up to committee members to determine how the bodies operate, and that he simply suggested last year that MLAs consider his office's work as they set agendas.

"At the time, I indicated if you're meeting 35 times a year, I hope you will consider our work. Here is a summary of our work. I never once said, 'You should limit your work to what we do or you shouldn't.'"

New Democrat MLA Susan LeBlanc, who represents Dartmouth North, said she remains of the view there should be more public accounts meetings, not fewer.

"There's a lot to talk about," she said in an interview Tuesday.

"There's a lot of concerns with the way the public accounts are being spent in this province and we need to have the opportunity to examine them when we need to."

Hammonds Plains-Lucasville MLA Ben Jessome is a Liberal member of the public accounts committee. (Dave Laughlin/CBC)

But Hammonds Plains-Lucasville MLA Ben Jessome, one of the Liberal members of the public accounts committee, said he feels MLAs have the ability to look into any concerns raised by the auditor general.

Public accounts is just one avenue at the disposal of MLAs, said Jessome.

"In the past I've done things like written letters [or] made phone calls to try and get answers to those questions," he said in an interview. "There's a number of other elements we can tap into to do that."

Jessome said that while the concerns Pickup expressed a year ago were part of the reason for the change, they were not the only reason. Consideration was also given to what happens in other provinces and at other levels of government, he said.

"The intent to move in that direction was to ensure that these reports that were being conducted — initially arm's length of government, the topics selected are arm's length of government — that we brought ourselves to a point where we could ensure that the office of the auditor general was making it more consistently to committee."

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