The provincial government is in the midst of rewriting the rules for how it buys everything from office supplies to ferries.
It will be months before anybody sees the text of the new legislation, but already the Opposition is worried the new system will reduce government transparency and accountability.
Earlier this year, the government signalled it was planning a major overhaul of the government purchasing process when it announced that Bill No. 1 in the House of Assembly would be the “Procurement by Public Bodies Act.”
But the government bypassed the bill — never actually introducing the text of the legislation — and it sat on the Order Paper untouched until the House closed in late June.
Service NL Minister Paul Davis said that the public tendering policy is something the government has been working on for a long time.
The PC party promised to rework the system in both the 2007 and 2011 election campaigns.
Davis said the legislation is one thing, but the real meat of the new policy will be contained in regulations that accompany the bill. To change legislation, the government has to pass amendments in the House of Assembly; regulations accompany legislation, but they can be changed by the government without going back to the legislature.
Davis said when the legislation makes it into the House of Assembly this fall, the government will also lay out all the regulations and policy guidelines as part of the debate.
He said his officials are doing consultations with government departments and companies who use the public tendering process as they write up the regulations in the next few months.
“The actual procurement process — the nuts and bolts of how that takes place — will be built into regulation,” Davis said. “We’re moving forward in doing those next steps now, and we’re soon going to announce and start working with our stakeholders again to move into that consultation process.”
But Liberal MHA Randy Edmunds said he’s worried the new legislation will serve to make government more secretive and less accountable for what it’s buying.
“I think it’ll be along the lines of the access to information, you know, it’ll favour the government and cut out transparency,” Edmunds said. “Democracy can be slow and the public tendering is a slow process, but what it does is account for transparency.”
Currently, the government is required to provide details whenever it uses one of several “exceptions” from the public tendering process.
The number of exceptions, and the total amount of money the government spends outside the public tendering process has been steadily increasing.
In the five years from 2007 to 2011, the government spent more than $500 million using public tendering exceptions, including some dubious uses of the exceptions.
For example, in 2009, the government cited a “pressing emergency” when it paid $28,000 to rent audio equipment for the welcoming ceremony when Prince Charles visited the province.
Edmunds said he suspects the new legislation will reduce that kind of transparency and disclosure.
During the spring session, the government was forced to endure a gruelling four-day filibuster to pass access to information legislation that broadly reduced the public’s access to government documents, and increased cabinet secrecy.
Edmunds said after the government took a beating in public opinion he believes it chose not to go ahead with the public tendering changes, because it would just open it up to further criticism.
“Bill 29 or any other piece of legislation has got nothing to do with it,” Davis said. “This has got to do with a significant piece of legislation on procurement.
He said the new legislation will give the government more flexibility and be less prescriptive when it comes to government purchasing.
By way of an example, he said the government had issued a public tender to buy a van, and only received a single bid, so that’s the van they bought.
“They got one bid and when they go down the dealership who bid on it, you know, here’s the van on the front lawn with a for sale sign on it, a thousand dollars less than the bid,” Davis said. “You could actually have walked in off the street and purchased that van at a lesser price, but the public tendering act doesn’t allow for that to take place.”
Davis said one of the principles guiding the government is “accountability and transparency” but at the same time, the new law aims to give more wiggle room to get the best value for taxpayers.
The legislation doesn’t just cover the provincial government; it will also govern municipalities, school boards, health authorities and other public bodies.
Edmunds said he was worried about how that will play out for Nalcor when it comes to contracting and buying things for the Muskrat Falls hydroelectric project.
“To me it seems like a lot of legislation is geared towards Muskrat Falls. The government has their whole future staked on Muskrat Falls,” he said. “I’m just sorry that this’ll give companies like Nalcor and some of their subsidiaries free options.”