Nova Scotia·Analysis

Is Stephen McNeil right to chide Nova Scotia's auditor general? Maybe

It's not the first time an auditor general's report has frustrated a premier, but Stephen McNeil's decision to pick a public fight with Michael Pickup is rare and risky.

Premier's criticism of Michael Pickup opens the door to debate about the auditor general's role

Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil. (CBC)

How a politician views the work of an auditor general usually depends on which side of the House they sit. In Nova Scotia, opposition MLAs generally consider the AG a friend, while government members see him as a foe.

"When you're in opposition, an auditor general's report is pure gold," is how former NDP finance minister Graham Steele characterizes the work of the AG and their staff.

Not surprisingly, both opposition leaders pounced on Premier Stephen McNeil's suggestion this week that Auditor General Michael Pickup should restrict his work to fiscal matters — or seek office if he wanted to criticize public policy.

"If he chooses and wants to do public policy, there are 51 ridings for him to run in," McNeil told reporters, a day after Pickup released a report critical of how the government was communicating on primary health care and doctor shortages.

PC Leader Jamie Baillie's retort: "I would much rather the premier spend his time getting the health-care system right than telling the AG to shut up." His NDP counterpart, Gary Burrill, called the premier's comment "pompous and high-handed and out of line."

Nova Scotia Auditor General Michael Pickup. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

But according to Kevin Quigley, director of the MacEachen Institute for Public Policy and Governance at Dalhousie University, the role of the auditor general should be up for discussion. In fact, he says it has been a topic of debate in the public policy world for 15 to 20 years.

"The role of the auditor has grown exponentially, so you have an unelected official who is actually having potentially very significant impact," says Quigley.

He is nonetheless surprised to hear McNeil openly question Pickup's role and suggest his office more narrowly define its work.

"The auditor is kind of seen as purer than pure," according to Quigley. "People don't like to pick fights with auditors."

(Robert Short/CBC)

Auditors also exert what Quigley calls "quiet influence" over the bureaucracy, where policy is designed with an eye on staving off criticism by not attracting attention.

The real issue, he says, is how the auditor general has taken on an outsized role because opposition parties are poorly funded and don't have the resources needed to do indepth research. That leaves the AG as a more powerful force to hold the government to account.

"Maybe, fundamentally what we need to have is a system that is better funded where MLAs have more confidence, better access to information, a better research engine in the legislature so they can be more confident in scrutinizing government."

Quigley is also concerned that media attention afforded AG reports has created a "celebrity culture for auditors." 

The February 2010 report by Jacques LaPointe, which ultimately led to criminal convictions against four former Nova Scotia MLAs for expense abuses, is probably the best example of the power of an audit to capture headlines and captivate media attention.

But much of that attention, according to Quigley, is without the same kind of scrutiny placed on other government officials. 

The Nova Scotia Legislature library. (Robert Short/CBC)

The role of the AG's office, as outlined in the Auditor General's Act, is broad, allowing them to launch an audit or investigation into anything "the Auditor General considers appropriate under the terms of this Act."

There is, however, a caveat specific to policy: "Nothing in this Act is to be interpreted as entitling the Auditor General to question the merits of policy objectives of the Government."

The view that Pickup strayed too far into policy critique is one McNeil maintained Friday following a government announcement.

"We will continue to deliver public policy to the people of Nova Scotia," he told reporters in Sydney. "The auditor general will continue to hold us to account for the fiscal decisions that we make."

(As a footnote to his comment about Pickup running for politics: The Nova Scotia Legislature library confirmed Friday that none of the six men who have served as auditor general in Nova Scotia since 1958 has ever been a candidate for a provincial election.)

Graham Steele is a former finance minister for Nova Scotia. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

Graham Steele, who spent twice as much time in opposition as he did as a government member in the legislature, recalls a number of times the AG's office "got it wrong."

"They're not gods," says Steele, who is also a former CBC political analyst. "They are not like oracles, everything they say is a pearl of wisdom. Sometimes they get things wrong."

But he disagrees with McNeil's suggestion that Pickup stepped over the line by criticizing the government's communications failings.

"I can't think of a single example in my 15 years of daily politics in Nova Scotia where an auditor general crossed the line into policy," he says. "The November report of the auditor general, in my view, didn't come anywhere close to crossing that line."

McNeil has hinted Pickup will be in for a rough ride from Liberal MLAs when the auditor general testifies before the legislature's public accounts committee Wednesday . 

And it's there, according to Quigley, that questions of policy should be vigorously debated.

"Fundamentally, the accountability lies in the House and we need to have well-informed MLAs who can ask tough questions of government and hold the government to account."

It's the type of scrutiny, he suggests, MLAs aren't fully equipped to deliver.

About the Author

Jean Laroche

Reporter

Jean Laroche has been a CBC reporter for 32 years. He's been covering Nova Scotia politics since 1995 and has been at Province House longer than any sitting member.