Liberals limit meetings of once-powerful legislature committee
Public accounts committee will only meet 12 times a year, less than half of historic workload
The legislature committee that grilled bureaucrats on the costly rebuild of the Bluenose II, dissected deals that brought public-private partnership schools to Nova Scotia, and examined a controversial immigration scheme is once again seeing its work curtailed.
Liberal MLA Gordon Wilson put forward a motion Wednesday to drastically cut meetings of the public accounts committee to once a month. The Liberals hold a majority on the all-party committee which, in recent years, has met 20 to 29 times annually.
Wilson justified the change by suggesting it wasn't really a reduction given the creation of a new standing committee on health, which will also meet 12 times a year.
"I think we've stepped up big time," the representative for Clare-Digby told reporters following passage of his motion over the objections of opposition members.
Health committee meetings, like public accounts, will be "open and transparent" because they'll be televised, he added.
When told even 24 public accounts meetings would be fewer than the number held last year and in 2016, Wilson responded: "I don't agree we're going to fewer meetings."
Public accounts met only 20 times in 2017 because the House was dissolved when the premier called an election.
New Democrat committee member Lisa Roberts called the move to limit meetings "a dirty trick."
"This is just an exercise in the power that the Liberals have by having a majority on the committee to thwart our work," she said after Wilson walked away from reporters.
"I find it just abhorrent."
PC committee member Tim Halman said it was "a sad day for democracy in Nova Scotia."
"The once mighty public accounts committee is now fully constrained," he said. "Constrained specifically just to the auditor general reports and we can only meet once a month.
"It makes me wonder what are the Liberals hiding?"
Later, following a luncheon address, Premier Stephen McNeil defended the move and suggested the opposition's criticism was unjustified.
"I'm surprised that the opposition wouldn't be embracing the health committee which will allow them to look at half of our budget," he said.
"I would encourage them to take this new opportunity to hold us accountable on health care, that's what this is for."
The opposition parties have said the changes amount to a shift in the public accounts committee's mandate, which requires a two-third's majority vote by the entire House, but Speaker Kevin Murphy brushed aside those concerns.
"The committee is the master of its own domain," he said.
When the three House leaders were in discussions last month to create the health committee, Liberal Geoff MacLellan talked about the need for all three political parties at Province House to work together.
"The worst thing we can do, the biggest disservice we can provide to Nova Scotians, is to make this partisan or to begin to try to manoeuvre or manufacture things inside of that committee," he said.
"I think that this is one that's important to show Nova Scotians that we work together."