Nova Scotia

Opposition criticize N.S. legislative committees for going MIA amid COVID-19

Tory MLA Barb Adams says the absence of legislative committee meetings during COVID-19 means a key oversight tool for the Nova Scotia government is not in place. "We should be meeting more often, not less," she says.

'We should be meeting more often, not less,' says Tory MLA Barb Adams

Tory MLA Barb Adams says committee meetings are a way for MLAs to question government officials and various stakeholders. (CBC)

In the midst of a pandemic that posed the biggest threat to Nova Scotia's health-care system in recent memory, the chair of the legislature's health committee has not called a single meeting and has rejected repeated interview requests.

Liberal MLA Suzanne Lohnes-Croft has not called a meeting of the committee since February.

On Wednesday, Nova Scotia Liberal caucus spokesperson Stephen Tobin offered no information about why Lohens-Croft has been unwilling to do interviews, other than to note that she recently had a grandchild and took some personal time.

Tobin said Lohnes-Croft is now "working her way back into the office."

"At this time she won't be participating in interviews."

MLAs have not been in Province House for legislative business since the end of the spring sitting. (Robert Short/CBC)

CBC News has been requesting interviews with Lohnes-Croft and three other Liberal MLAs who chair committees since April. Brendan Maguire, the chair of the human resources committee, and Rafah DiCostanzo, chair of the veterans affairs committee, responded. Keith Irving, chair of the community services committee, did not.

The public accounts committee is chaired by Tory MLA Keith Bain. However, Liberal MLAs have used their majority to prevent meetings of that committee from happening.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the provincial government has effectively shut down any committee business on the basis of safety concerns, rejecting even calls for telephone or video meetings at a time when other provincial governments, the federal government and municipal governments across the country have continued to find ways to meet and debate issues.

Tory MLA Barb Adams, a member of the health committee, said the absence of meetings means a key oversight tool for the government is not in place. Committee meetings are a way for MLAs from all three parties to have a chance to question government officials and various stakeholders, she said.

"We should be meeting more often, not less," Adams said.

She said an example of what the health committee could be talking about right now is how long-term care was affected by COVID-19.

Liberal MLA Suzanne Lohnes-Croft chairs the legislature's health committee and natural resources and economic development committee. (Nova Scotia Legislature)

"We want to be able to talk about what happened at Northwood, why did it happen and, more importantly, what can we do better?" she said.

The only committee to meet since the end of the spring sitting at Province House has been the human resources committee, which is mandated to meet periodically and cannot be shut down.

No oversight for spending

Members, including Lohnes-Croft, had a meeting via teleconference last month, with Maguire saying he thought things went smoothly. Still, that endorsement has not been enough to prompt Maguire's colleagues to consent to other committees meeting.

New Democrat MLA Claudia Chender said it would be particularly valuable for the public to have the public accounts committee, which scrutinizes government spending, and the health committee meeting at a time when the province is spending hundreds of millions of dollars to try to help the economy and the health-care system is grappling with a public health emergency.

"This government decided that they wanted to have a health committee," she said.

NDP House leader Claudia Chender says it's time for MLAs to resume their committee duties. (Jean Laroche/CBC)

"If this isn't the time for a committee like that to be functioning, so we can hear from senior civil servants and the folks in charge of both our COVID response, our COVID recovery and how we're prepared to head into a second wave … then there never has been a time." 

Chender said it made sense to hit pause on the committees at the beginning of the pandemic, but it's time for MLAs to resume their committee duties.

"I can get a haircut or sit at a bar, but I cannot perform my legislative functions, and I think that should matter to all Nova Scotians," she said.

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