The public accounts committee (PAC) has been dormant for almost a year, but it’s living up to its name following media reports about its inactivity.
How so? Because there are now public — though very differing — accounts about why the committee that oversees government spending hasn’t met since last Feb. 24.
Government and opposition members are blaming each other.
“It’s not my fault meetings weren’t held,” said Tory MHA John Dinn, former vice-chairman of the PAC.
Earlier this week, CBC News reported the committee hasn’t met publicly in six years and has convened privately just once since October 2010.
That inactivity flies in the face of recommendations for legislature reform made in 2007 by Newfoundland and Labrador Supreme Court Chief Justice Derek Green.
In a comprehensive report prompted by a spending scandal, Green suggested the PAC become a spending watchdog, and he encouraged more public meetings.
Dinn was named in the CBC story because, as vice-chairman, he was paid $10,000, despite only attending a single meeting.
The MHA for Kilbride came out swinging Thursday morning.
He said the PAC is like any other House of Assembly committee in which members are paid. He noted he would have received the $10,000 no matter how often they met.
Dinn said he was available to attend meetings at any time and pointed a finger towards the Liberals.
He charged there weren’t more meetings because the Grits didn’t name a chairperson after former MHA Roland Butler resigned due to health reasons last spring.
The PAC is comprised of four government and three opposition members. The opposition selects the chair.
Asked about Dinn’s remark, a Liberal spokesman promptly emailed The Telegram a May 31, 2011 press release announcing Marshall Dean, another former MHA, as chairman.
“I never knew,” Dinn said in a followup interview. “He never contacted me. He should have contacted me right away.”
Even before Butler’s resignation, he added, meetings would be called and then canceled.
Liberal Jim Bennett wonders why Dinn wasn’t more proactive if he was so concerned.
“They could say to the Liberals, ‘We realize you only have a caucus of three or four, but we’re still interested in public accountability, the deputy is going to call a meeting and we’re looking for your input or replacement person,’” the St. Barbe MHA suggests.
“This is not something where the government that has 90 per cent of the seats in the House of Assembly can blame an opposition that’s barely struggling to cover all the issues. This is a convenient cop-out for him.”
The committee was dissolved with this fall’s provincial election and a new one can’t be put in place until the House sits and approves it.
The Liberals have pegged Bennett to become chairman.
Why not resign?
In the CBC story, Butler said his party wanted the PAC to have open meetings in the past but the PC majority shot the idea down.
Speaking to The Telegram, Dinn wondered why the Liberals didn’t take action if they felt so strongly.
“Why didn’t they kick up a fuss at the House of Assembly or walk (and) say ‘We resign?’”
Asked for reaction, Butler said the Liberals did raise the issue in the House. He added he could have resigned but didn’t because of the progress made since he took over as chairman in 2008.
He said the committee had gone from inactive to meeting three times in 2008, and six times in 2009 and 2010.
“We moved a long way and ... I believe in the philosophy you attract more with honey than with vinegar. The only thing (missing) was the public meeting bit,” he said.
Butler noted he had no issue with Dinn receiving $10,000. He would have been eligible for $13,000 as the chairman, but because of his other roles, the rules prevented him from receiving it.
Bennett is promising the PAC will be transparent under his watch.
If the Tories vote down important issues, he’s pledging to go public.
“Everything will be on the table and everything will be in the open and we’re going to go to work. People deserve it and we’re being paid to do it.”
Bennett said he has tried to arrange an informal meeting of the committee, but Tory House leader Jerome Kennedy hasn’t responded to requests for the names of government’s representatives.
“The public accounts committee will be struck when the House of Assembly reopens, with a member of the opposition as chair, as is normal practice,” Kennedy, also Natural Resources minister, said in an emailed response to Bennett’s claim.
“We look forward to our members’ participation. Matters relating to the work of the committee, its schedule, etcetera, will be left to the committee to discuss.”
Bennett noted these latest concerns about the PAC result from the House not opening this fall.
New Democratic Party Leader Lorraine Micheal agreed.
On Thursday, she renewed her call for an active committee, and said she’s assuming her party will now be part of it, given the increase in NDP MHAs.
“When our caucus is represented, I can assure you we will speak very strongly in favour of regular public meetings,” Michael said in a release.
If Bennett gets his way, the NDP will have a voice.
He’s proposing the committee add two seats, with the New Democrats getting one and government the other.