The Fang-less Five, the McNeil government and (un)accountability

In his own Trumpian, alternate-fact world, MLA Gordon Wilson wants us to believe the public accounts committee can’t venture beyond the narrow confines of published auditor general’s reports when examining public spending because… well, that would be against the law. Time for Wilson to re-read the “law.”

This column originally appeared in the Halifax Examiner January 14, 2019.

Stephen McNeil’s Fang-less Five, also known as the Craven Cabal of Liberal Nobodies, are up to their usual tricks. Still. Again.

Let’s recap.

Last April, a 19-year-old student, innocently looking for government information releases relating to an ongoing dispute between the provincial government and its teachers (you may remember that), was accidentally able to download 7,000 freedom-of-information documents, some of which contained un-redacted personal information about those applying for information.

The information flooded forth from a supposedly secure portal maintained for the Nova Scotia government by a private company — UNISYS — as part of an ongoing, taxpayer-paid $50-million contract overseen by the province’s own IT department.

Incredibly, it took more than a month for anyone to twig to the security breach. Duly twigged, the government’s second response — after shuttering the portal— was to call in the police, who wrongly arrested the 19-year-old. Meanwhile, the provincial minister in charge failed to take charge. “All I can say today is that there was an issue,” unhelpfully declared Internal Services Minister Patricia Arab.

This was, it seemed, the moment for someone to take responsibility: to figure out how and why this had happened, how it would be fixed and who, if anyone, should ultimately be held accountable.

In the normal course of legislative affairs, that job would fall to the legislature’s aptly named public accounts committee. According to its own website, “the standing committee on public accounts reviews public spending, reports of the auditor general and any other financial matters respecting the public funds of the province.”

Soon after the privacy breach became publicly known, opposition members of the committee — who do not constitute its majority — asked that government IT officials be called to testify about how well private IT suppliers were fulfilling their responsibilities to keep government and private citizens’ information secure.

The government members on the committee — MLAs Gordon Wilson, Suzanne Lohnes-Croft, Ben Jessome, Brendan Maguire and Hugh MacKay, also known as the Fang-less Five and/or the Craven Cabal of Liberal Nobodies — immediately, mindlessly misused their majority to reject the request in the interests of government secrecy and Liberal unaccountability.

Why? They said they wanted to wait — why act when you can delay? —  for the auditor general to investigate and then issue an official report on the incident. (Ironically, the auditor general had already released a general report into government IT problems. Its recommendations had mostly not been implemented, but the government members chose not to bother revisiting that either.)

Flash forward to last week. Michael Pickup, the auditor general is about to release his report on the privacy breach. But so too is Catherine Tully, the province’s freedom of information and protection of privacy commissioner, who has also been conducting her own investigation into what went wrong and how to fix it.

The government has little option but to let the auditor general testify about his report, which will be released tomorrow.

But last week, its members voted down the opposition’s request to hear from Tully at the same meeting. And then — to make their intentions clear — they turned down a separate opposition request to have Tully appear at a later meeting.

“The focus of the public accounts committee,” explained Gordon Wilson, the committee’s vice chair and de-facto carrier of the government’s political water, “is to hear reports from the auditor general, period… It’s important for us all to understand the role of public accounts, what’s mandated by law.”

Ah, yes, all of us should understand that. Starting with Mr. Wilson. In his own Trumpian, alternate-fact world, Wilson appeared to be claiming the committee couldn’t venture beyond the narrow confines of published auditor general’s reports when examining public spending because… well, because that would be against the law.

I would direct your attention — and the attention of Mr. Wilson — to the afore-mentioned website description of the public accounts committee’s mandate:

“The standing committee on public accounts reviews public spending, reports of the auditor general and any other financial matters respecting the public funds of the province.”

As bad as that cavalier disregard of reality is — and it is — it’s worth noting there is about to be a new legislative committee in town. It’s called the standing committee on health and it was established, in theory, because health is the government’s biggest budget line item and so we could use a committee focused exclusively on examining its spending.

But here’s the problem. The new health committee is yet another majority-government-member committee. Worse, its chairman is none other than chief government apologist and protector Gordon Wilson.

Do not expect much accountability. Do not expect much.

And you will probably still be disappointed.

A version of this column originally appeared in the Halifax Examiner
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