Premier suggests legislative committee meetings are threat to public safety
Liberal MLAs have shut down all legislative committees but one since March
Premier Stephen McNeil suggested Thursday that holding legislative committees right now would put the health and safety of the province at risk.
McNeil made the comments on the same day he announced an easing of public gathering restrictions and plans to open Nova Scotia to visitors from the rest of the country by the middle of July.
"There will be lots of time for [reporters] and the opposition to question [Chief Medical Officer of Health] Dr. [Robert] Strang, and we'll do that," McNeil said. "But I'm not willing, quite frankly, to put at risk the health and well-being of Nova Scotians to satisfy a committee meeting."
Opposition politicians have been critical of the government's decision not to call meetings of the legislature's standing committees on health and public accounts at a time when the health-care system faced a serious threat from COVID-19 and the government has plans to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to help stimulate the economy.
The health committee has not met since February and public accounts has not met since March. No committee has met since then except for the human resources committee, which met late last month via teleconference. It is the only committee the government cannot use its majority to shut down.
Committees aren't the focus right now
Speaking to reporters during a teleconference that was broadcast online, the premier suggested past reporting on the subject has unfairly characterized his government as doing less than other governments, which didn't have as early a spring legislative sitting or don't have majorities.
"That would be open and transparent to the readers and listeners of your shows and articles," he said.
The fact is, however, Nova Scotia remains the only province to not engage in some form of legislative debate about the pandemic since its arrival and the government's subsequent response. The province didn't have its first confirmed case of COVID-19 until about a week after the legislature wrapped in March until the fall.
McNeil said it was important when they made the decision to suspend committees until the fall to allow Strang and other public health and Health Department officials to focus on the pandemic, and now for them to focus on reopening the health-care system as the curve flattens. Nova Scotia has not had a new case of COVID-19 for nine days.
'Paternalistic and out of line'
The premier equated the televised COVID-19 briefings he does — which have been temporarily suspended — with what can be achieved in committee meetings, which typically last about two hours and involve subject matter expert witnesses. By contrast, reporters involved with the premier's briefings get two questions each.
"I'm sure there are many Nova Scotians who are watching this right now who are asking themselves, 'How much more open and transparent could the premier be short of being on this newscast every day?'"
As the curve has flattened, public health restrictions have eased and more and more people return to work, opposition MLAs have made the case that they, too, should be resuming legislative duties.
The premier disagreed, saying any MLAs who don't have enough to do without committees operating "are not doing a very good job in their own constituencies."
"Go back and do some work and represent and answer the questions of those you represent."
NDP Leader Gary Burrill said the premier's view on committee work is "paternalistic and out of line."
Lessons to be learned
It's condescending to suggest the government doesn't have the ability to attend to public health issues and engage in democracy practices at the same time, he said.
"The province is full of people today who are attending to their work and to their families, to their responsibilities while they deal with the COVID situation. There is no reason in the world why the government can't do the same thing."
Tory Leader Tim Houston said if there is a danger related to committees, it's in them not meeting. The premier's resistance gives the view of a government that doesn't want to be held accountable, he said.
In the case of the health committee, in particular, Houston said there are a variety of witnesses from within the sector who could be called to talk about how the system has responded to COVID-19, what worked and what needs to be improved ahead of the arrival of a possible second wave of the coronavirus.
"There are lessons that can be learned from what happened at Northwood, what happened across the province and the public health committee is the place for those lessons to be learned," he said. "That's the place for an open format, for the questions to be asked."