Nova Scotia

Attempt to remove partisanship from N.S. public accounts committee hits a snag

Nova Scotia MLAs are trying to remove the partisanship from one of the legislature’s most powerful committees but none of the committee members are willing to take the first step.

MLAs have worked with the auditor general on an eight-month trial approach

Nova Scotia Auditor General Kim Adair has been working with members of the legislature's public accounts committee on ways to improve its effectiveness. (Patrick Callaghan/CBC)

Nova Scotia MLAs are trying to remove the partisanship from one of the legislature's most powerful committees but none of the committee members are willing to take the first step.

During the committee's meeting on Wednesday, a motion was expected to be tabled that would have launched an eight-month trial of a new approach to selecting meeting topics and general operations with the assistance of the auditor general.

Liberal MLA Brendan Maguire said he would not support the motion. New Democrat MLA Susan Leblanc said she supports it but would not be the mover and no one from the governing Tories would make the motion either.

"Well, it sounds like we're in one of those 'gotcha moments' that we thought we weren't going to do," said Tory MLA Tom Taggart.

Taggart accused opposition MLAs of trying to get the government to make the motion so they would be branded as exerting influence over the committee.

Tory MLA Nolan Young said he and his colleagues want the process to be collaborative, as opposed to people suggesting members of the governing party are forcing changes on the committee structure. (CBC)

Tory MLA Nolan Young told reporters he was surprised by the way things played out.

"Before the cameras were rolling there was buy-in by all parties," he said.

"If we're truly looking to work together and everyone is willing to accept it, I think that's something that should come in a manner where we're not using our majority to push through changes in that way."

For months, committee members have worked with Auditor General Kim Adair to create a so-called roadmap to improve the culture and effectiveness of the committee.

In an interview with CBC News, Adair said the committee does some things well, such as frequent meetings and prompt hearings on subjects covered by auditor general reports.

Where there is room for improvement, she said, is when it comes to meeting topics that are not covered by her office's work. The changes being discussed are in line with best practices across the country, she said.

Room for improvement

There are times when topics are called that are outside the committee's mandate, which is to focus on improving administration and examining government finances. The new process would have MLAs collaborate on submitting topics, with the auditor general providing input on whether the proposed topics and witnesses conform to the committee mandate.

The meetings are also infused with too much partisanship, said Adair.

"I know it's a difficult thing to think about elected officials functioning in a non-partisan way, but … the public accounts committee is intended to be that way," said Adair.

"We'll see how it goes."

Leblanc told reporters she feels "hopeful" about the plan.

New Democrat MLA Susan Leblanc said she's hoping the proposed roadmap for the committee can lead to improved operations. (CBC)

While in power, the former Liberal government used its majority on the committee to limit the number of meetings and to block topics it did not want called because of the possible political sensitivities.

Although the governing Tories have restored meetings to a more regular frequency, they have used their majority to alter witness lists and challenge topics submitted by opposition members.

"The roadmap is a commitment to work together in a bipartisan way — not in a non-partisan way, but a bipartisan way — to choose topics with recommendations from the auditor general and to come to decisions in a consensus form," said Leblanc.

"So the government would essentially be giving up their ability to veto things for their eight-month period."

It's because of that majority that Leblanc believes the Tories should be the ones to make the motion. The majority party has typically been the one to make general motions about committee business, she said.

"I think that there is a significant amount of distrust between the parties right now in making these changes and I think everyone is a little bit afraid — including the government — to move forward in a way that will only benefit the people of Nova Scotia."

Liberal MLA Brendan Maguire said he is concerned government members on the public accounts committee will use their majority to change the committee operations even if opposition members protest. (CBC)

Maguire was open about his distrust of the government while speaking to reporters.

He said he's concerned the roadmap process could block the ability of committee members to bring forward issues that need to be addressed promptly, particularly if they are unfavourable for the government.

Maguire pointed to the redevelopment of the Halifax Infirmary as an example. The project is years behind schedule and it has been acknowledged it will cost considerably more than originally budgeted.

"Those are the topics we have to be able to bring forward before money is spent and people are impacted," he said.

Young said there is no intention to remove power from the committee or limit the ability of any party to call topics. He said the focus is on making the committee operate in a more functional way.

"I think we've had some highly functional meetings and I think we've had some dysfunction," he said.

A review after eight months

Committee chair Kelly Regan set aside the motion on Wednesday once it was clear no MLA was willing to move it. MLAs will next have the opportunity to bring forward the roadmap motion during their meeting on Nov. 30.

If the motion is passed, the plan is for committee members to meet with the auditor general to review the new approach after eight months.

"We will talk about what was good that happened and what was bad that happened — like a bunch of adults in a room — and we will figure out where we go next," said Leblanc.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Michael Gorman is a reporter in Nova Scotia whose coverage areas include Province House, rural communities, and health care. Contact him with story ideas at michael.gorman@cbc.ca

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