Public accounts committee to reduce meetings in 2019 by half

Click to play video 'Opposition claims N.S. Liberals aren’t being transparent' Opposition claims N.S. Liberals aren’t being transparent
WATCH: The Liberals are reducing Public Accounts committee meetings from weekly to monthly, but the premier says that's not a reduction in transparency. Elizabeth McSheffrey has more.

The government body charged with ensuring Nova Scotians’ taxpayer dollars are spent properly has drastically reduced the number of times it will meet annually, prompting accusations that it’s cutting back on fiscal transparency.

The public accounts committee (PAC) has decided it will meet once a month, down from up to four meetings per month in previous years. That’s because of the province’s recently-created health committee, which will also meet once a month – fielding many of the inquiries that would normally go to PAC.

The Health Department is Nova Scotia’s largest budget item, and since 2013, its officials have been called to testify before PAC at least 18 times. The creation of a separate committee for health, and the divvying up of annual meetings between that committee and PAC, isn’t a reduction of transparency, said the government – it’s simply a refocusing on one of the province’s most critical portfolios.

“I’m surprised the Opposition wouldn’t be embracing the health committee, which would allow them to look at half of our budget,” Premier Stephen McNeil told reporters at a Halifax Chamber of Commerce luncheon on Wednesday.

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“I think we’ve stepped up big time, creating a health committee, which again, is something that was never done by…other governments prior to us,” added PAC vice-chair Gordon Wilson after the committee meeting Wednesday morning.

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The PAC meetings offer the public an opportunity to challenge the government on departmental spending on camera, and the health committee meetings will extend that same opportunity, with a specific focus on the government’s largest chunk of spending.

But ultimately, those wishing to challenge the finances of other departments will now only have 12 chances, instead of double that. Over the last three years, PAC has convened 25, 20 and 29 times annually.

Despite that clear decrease, government denies that PAC will meet less in 2019.

“I don’t agree that we’re going to fewer meetings,” said Wilson.

WATCH: Opposition MLAs leave committee meeting in protest

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Opposition MLAs leave committee meeting in protest

The NDP’s Gary Burrill called it “disingenuous” for the government to equate 12 health committee meetings and 12 PAC meetings with having 25 or more PAC meetings a year. He said the health committee is a separate issue and should be addressed as such.

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“For the government first to have moved to restrict the topics that can be brought before the public accounts committee, and then now today to make the unconscionable move that we will have the public accounts committee meet one quarter as often as it used to monthly instead of weekly – this is a major disrespect and a major diminishment of the capacity for democratic accountability in Nova Scotia,” he said after the premier’s luncheon address.

Progressive Conservative MLA for Dartmouth East Tim Halman, who sits on PAC, raised similar issues.

“This committee historically has done an outstanding job in challenging government in how taxpayer dollars are being spent and how public policy is being executed in the public interest. Again, it’s like, what are they hiding? What is going here so that they’re limiting the power not only of public accounts, but all these other committees?”

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The next scheduled meeting of the new health committee is Feb. 12.