Now that the Fangless Five have become the Insensate Seven, it’s time for…?

Stephen McNeil’s Liberals have made a mockery of the notion of public accountability. So now the opposition parties need to step up and do their — and our — job.

The column originally appeared in the Halifax Examiner February 4, 2019.

Stephen McNeil’s Liberals have made a mockery of the notion of public accountability. So the opposition parties need to step up and do their — and our — job.

I have more than once described the Liberal members of the standing committee on public accounts — Vice Chair Gordon Wilson and MLAs Brendan Maguire, Suzanne Lohnes-Croft, Hugh MacKay and Ben Jessome — as the “Fangless Five” for their unfailingly fearless failure to do their job of holding the government to account.

Someone on social media one-upped me by calling them the “Feckless Five.”

Last week, Examiner Editor Tim Bousquet offered up “Craven Fools,” as in “these craven fools are undermining the very institutions of our democracy.”

Hold that thought.

Irving, DiConstanzo/DiConstanzo, Irving

It turns out we may need even more new nomenclature now that we must include the two additional interchangeable Babbling Bobbleheads from the freshly-minted-but-still-smells-of-the-same-old standing committee on health.

The health committee boasts two different, don’t-make-a-damn-difference Liberal MLAs — Keith Irving and Rafah DiCostanzo — to the aforementioned MLAs Wilson, now elevated to chair, Lohnes-Croft and Jessome.

The very short version of how we got here.

Last September, the McNeil government, stung by its own inability to make the multiple crises in Nova Scotia’s health care system magically disappear, decided to appoint a new standing committee on health in order to not discuss those crises.

Under the Liberals scheme, the public accounts committee, which used to call witnesses from the health sector to answer questions about the ways in which our health care dollars are spent and not spent, would no longer be talk about health. Instead, that role would be handed off to the new health committee.

But then this happened.

Last Wednesday, the opposition members of the public accounts committee tried to add discussions of the mental health crisis in Cape Breton, home support contracts and family-doctor numbers to the committee’s agenda.

It should be noted the revised mandate of the public accounts committee ­— thanks to the Liberals own insistence — is now only to consider reports of the auditor general. The auditor general examined all of those issues in his 2017 report.

But No, No, piped up Liberal committee space-taker Ben Jessome. Issues of health can now only be discussed over at the health committee.

The very next day, the selfsame health committee — whose mandate is to consider “matters of access to and delivery of health care services” met. Wilson presided. Jessome — yes, that one — Lohnes-Croft, Irving and DiCostanzo assiduously assented. Surprise, surprise. The Liberal majority voted down discussion of… wait for it… access to and delivery of health care services resulting from emergency room over-crowding, ambulance off-loading delays and physician working conditions.

As Tim Bousquet asked plaintively: “Have they no shame?”

No need to answer that.

But let’s ask another question: what can/should the opposition do now in the face of the Liberal members’ —  let’s call them the Insensate Seven’s — refusal to allow MLAs to do their jobs?

In a majority government, the government inevitably stacks most committees with reliable partisans who know better than to buck the will of the premier. But traditionally, the public accounts committee, even in a majority government situation, has tended to be more thoughtful and less partisan than other committees for the very good reason that its members are supposed to be discussing important “financial matters respecting the public funds of the province.”

Stephen McNeil’s Liberals have made a mockery of that notion. And it’s not as if they’re doing such a good job managing health care that how they manage it shouldn’t be up for public discussion.

So here’s a suggestion. The opposition parties need to get together and agree to set up parallel people’s public accounts committee to do the job the government’s puppet committees are refusing to do.

This committee needs to be at least bi-partisan. It won’t work if it’s seen simply as a vote-getting ploy by either the Liberals or the Tories. And the opposition has to at least invite the governing Liberals to participate by naming an equal number of members to the tri-party committee.

The committee, with or without Liberal participation, should then call government staff and other witnesses to testify so we, as citizens, can really understand how our health — and other — dollars are being spent.

If the Liberals do agree to participate — which they won’t — we have the basis for the evolution of a less partisan public accounts committee in the future.

If the Liberals don’t — which they won’t — then the Tories and the NDP must commit publicly to creating a new meaningful committee structure, one not controlled by the governing party, should they form the government.

If the opposition parties won’t commit to that, and they — eyes on the prize of one day themselves controlling all those levers of power — may not, then we need to publicly make our electoral support contingent on a clear plan to clean up a partisan swamp all three parties have been creating year-by-year, administration-by-administration for far too long.

Because Tim Bousquet wasn’t overstating the case. “These craven fools are undermining the very institutions of our democracy.”

A version of this column originally appeared in the Halifax Examiner
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