Nova Scotia’s Liberal government used the “tyranny of its majority” Wednesday to neuter the one committee of the legislature that actually sheds an occasional light into the dark corners of the government.
That’s how Opposition House Leader Chris d’Entremont (PC-Argyle-Barrington) characterized the government’s action, which he called “an unprecedented shameful, sneaky manoeuvre to shield government” from scrutiny.
The Liberal majority on the legislature’s Public Accounts Committee pushed through a motion that, in effect, renders the committee impotent. The motion limits the committee to examination of matters already covered in the auditor general’s reports.
The irony that the Liberals chose Right-to-Know Week to remove the teeth from a vital and long-standing check on government secrecy in Nova Scotia, would be lost on this government.
The government consistently exercises its authority to ensure that it alone decides what Nova Scotians are permitted to know about how it operates.
Last week, Premier Stephen McNeil shrugged off criticism from the Freedom of Information Commissioner who found the government had breached the province’s Freedom of Information law, again.
But Nova Scotia’s Freedom of Information Act — a relic of 1994 — is also toothless, so there are no real consequences for breaking the law.
The Liberal’s motion changes the way the committee works and may therefore be contrary to the rules of the legislature. House Speaker Kevin Murphy was asked to rule on that and took it under advisement. Only the full legislature can alter the mandate of committees.
It the Liberal motion stands, it will bludgeon the life out of the one functioning committee of the legislature that ill-serves the government’s partisan ends. The Public Accounts Committee regularly exposed well-hidden government weaknesses, mistakes and misadventures.
The Liberals seem to limit their concept of parliamentary democracy to “majority rules.” Any discussion of the topic that goes deeper than that is lost on them.
The fact is, majority does not “rule.” Laws rule, and in parliamentary democracies, traditions have grown up to check the powers of the majority party.
Nova Scotia’s Liberal government — which seems to forget that six in 10 Nova Scotians voted to defeat it a year ago — tramples those traditions with all the grace of an uncoordinated, over-grown adolescent.
Previously and traditionally, opposition members on the Public Accounts Committee could propose matters for the committee’s agenda and have done so to positive effect in Nova Scotia for decades. The Liberal motion will put an end to that.
The partisan motive behind the Liberals’ move is obvious. By limiting what the committee can examine, the Liberals are, in effect, ensuring the committee doesn’t dredge up any politically embarrassing news, beyond what the Auditor General has already uncovered.
The auditor general’s reports are meticulously detailed and complete. Once issued, there usually isn’t much more to say. The government takes its medicine and moves on.
Liberal MLAs on the Public Accounts Committee were quick to point out that in other Canadian jurisdictions, public accounts committees focus exclusively on matters raised in the reports of their auditors general.
In those other jurisdictions there are also other meaningful checks on the government — like a Freedom of Information law that has some teeth.
Those Nova Scotians who remember the long government of John Buchanan (1978-90) may not recall how it ended. Premier Buchanan was called to the Senate by fellow Conservative, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, not long after a former Nova Scotia deputy minister laid bare before the legislature’s Public Accounts Committee a litany of what was then called patronage – government’s habit of favouring its friends.
Michael Zareski was the deputy and his allegation had not been the subject of report by the auditor general of the day. He was at the committee because opposition MLAs — Liberals at the time — called him there, and the Tory majority on the committee allowed it to happen.
Almost 40 years later, a Liberal government with a slim majority in the legislature used that majority to manipulate and mangle one of the last checks on its power, and it did so purely to protect itself politically.
The Liberal government in Nova Scotia seems determined to build insurmountable obstacles to finding the truth. Nova Scotians have to ask themselves, why that is?