Ask no questions, get no answers… Mission accomplished

Public Accounts Committee meeting. (The Signal)

This column originally appeared in the Halifax Examiner June 4, 2018.

HOUSTON: The motion is that the Public Accounts Committee meet on June 13th, June 20th, and June 27thto address these three topics of the Auditor General’s report in a timely fashion. 

CHAIRMAN: Would all those in favour of the motion please say Aye… Contrary minded, Nay…  The motion is defeated.

NS Public Accounts Committee meeting

May 30, 2018

Gordon Wilson

Gordon Wilson has no questions. Of course not. The McNeil government’s designated apologist/cheerleader/obstructionist on the province’s public accounts committee doesn’t want to know (or want you to know) what officials are actually doing to respond to the auditor-general’s latest findings?

“I, myself, personally?” the Digby-Clare Liberal MLA and vice chair of the committee responded last week when reporters put the question to him about whether he had any questions for officials. He and his fellow Liberal MLAs had just voted down Tory MLA Tim Houston’s request for the additional meetings.

“No.” No? Let’s review. The day before, Auditor General Michael Pickup had released his latest report. Among its findings:

  • Since 1996, the Nova Scotia government has failed to collect more than $63 million in court-ordered child and spousal support payments, a situation that became much worse after the previous NDP government centralized the program’s administration in New Waterford. Today, enforcement staff have impossibly high caseloads (330 to 450 per staff member, with up to 48,000 client contacts per year). Perhaps not surprisingly, the auditor general found that, in 21 of 25 specific cases it investigated, appropriate action wasn’t taken.
  • Staff at provincial corrections centres are being hired without required criminal records checks, and “newly hired correctional officers do not receive all required training,” including, critically, how to respond to mental health issues. In the less than two years the audit focused on, there were more than 600 assaults at the jails, including 75 involving attacks on staff. The report called the weaknesses in the government’s management of its four correctional centres “shocking.”
  • Three provincial departments – communities, culture and heritage, agriculture, and natural resources – doled out $45 million in government grants among them without bothering to follow up to see what had been achieved with its cash. Ooops.

Michael Pickup

During his own testimony to the public accounts committee last Wednesday, Pickup suggested department officials be called before the committee “sooner rather than later” to be held accountable for their actions and lack thereof, and their plans for the future.

But Gordon Wilson has no questions. In fact, he’d used his own time “questioning” the auditor general that day to spin light-and-bright Liberal “press releases” about what a fine job Stephen McNeil is doing.

“I feel very comfortable that [the auditor general’s] report is being dealt with,” he told reporters after the meeting.

“Being dealt with…” by the government.

That is Wilson’s current excuse for his own inexcusable inaction.

Earlier last month — when the issue was a Conservative motion to call officials from the internal services department to explain how the government had failed to protect private information in its freedom of information web portal, Wilson’s excuse-du-jour was that the matter had been referred to the auditor general so it would be “pre-emptive” for the committee to call the officials (a non-excuse the auditor general himself dismissed as without merit).

Wilson, of course, is just one member of the Gormless Gang of the Fang-less Five — which includes the other Liberal MLA/space-filler members of the public accounts committee: Suzanne Lohnes-Croft, Ben Jessome, Brendan Maguire and Hugh MacKay — who would rather play reliable cheerleader for Premier Stephen McNeil than do their job.

And make no mistake. Their job is to “review public spending, reports of the Auditor General and any other financial matters respecting the public funds of the Province.”

According to the legislature’s web site, in fact, the committee “normally meets weekly” to conduct its important public business. But instead of holding the three meetings in June to discuss the auditor general’s report, as Houston had suggested, the committee will now meet Wednesday to discuss rural internet services — and then not again until September 12th.

Because our legislature itself meets so rarely and so briefly, the public accounts committee has an even more important role here than it might in other jurisdictions. Such committees, which have been around in the British parliamentary system since 1861, “are one of the instruments that parliaments can use to check the governments’ activities.” They provide a necessary check and balance to government action, creating the opportunity  for public questioning of ministers and officials, holding them to account to ensure public money is well spent. In many jurisdictions, including Ottawa, the committee’s chair is a member of the opposition in order to emphasize the committee’s non-partisan functions.

In Nova Scotia, everything is partisan.

This, after all, is a government that also isn’t interested in reforming the province’s lax lobbyist registration system even after former Prime Minister Jean Chretien met with Premier Stephen McNeil this spring just a day after saying he wanted to hit the province up for funding for a Cape Breton container terminal group he “advises.”

Chretien isn’t registered as a lobbyist and hasn’t even bothered to respond to a follow-up letter from the province’s registrar of lobbyists, asking him to make sure he’s following the rules.

“The system has teeth,” McNeil says.

And the public accounts committee is a watch dog.

And so it goes.

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A version of this column originally appeared in the Halifax Examiner. To read the latest column, please subscribe.

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