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The Nova Scotia legislature no longer has a public accounts committee worthy of the name.
This is a loss to Nova Scotians who care how their tax dollars are spent and to what affect. Such citizens likely also harbour the misconception that they have a right to this information, but in Nova Scotia that right has been diminished, if not extinguished by the governing Liberals.
If you are a Nova Scotian, what you are entitled to know about the government is what the government decides to tell you, and its unspoken creed is: “What you don’t know, can’t hurt us.”
Take the Yarmouth-to-Maine ferry. On Wednesday, at acommittee once deserving of the title “public accounts,” the Conservatives, supported by the NDP, tried to call government officials who could shed some light on the murkiest deal a Nova Scotia government has hatched since John Buchanan’s government invested in automated toilet seats. (It’s a long story. Some other time.)
In years past, under former governments of three stripes, the ferry deal would be fair game for the public accounts committee. The committee’s examination of the issue would be timely as well, given Bay Ferries move from Portland to Bar Harbour this year, with attendant undisclosed but increased costs to Nova Scotian taxpayers.
But, predictably, the Liberal majority on the committee defeated the Tory motion. And the one committee of the legislature that had a fighting chance of getting at the secrets in the deal between the province and Bay Ferries has been effectively stripped of its fight.
The public accounts of the province show that the total cost to taxpayers to run the ferry for the past three seasons is over $34 million, but the government refuses to release details of the deal, most notably the built-in profit for Bay Ferries, also known as the “management fee.”
Incidentally, the published public accounts of the province and the committee bearing the same name is not some cosmic coincidence. The purpose of the committee is – or was – to scrutinize the province’s accounts in detail and for value. But, over a series of meetings, the Liberals managed to limit the committee’s scope, until it is no longer capable of properlyperforming that function.
Premier Stephen McNeil’s promise of an open and transparent government fits neatly into the same category as Donald Trump’s promise that Mexico will pay for the wall.
Bay Ferries move from Portland to Bar Harbour will cost Nova Scotians several million dollars. If you want to look on the bright side, Nova Scotian taxpayers can take heart that their money is creating much-needed employment and economic activity in northern Maine.
As a Nova Scotian taxpayer, you will foot the bill to lease the Bar Harbour ferry terminal - $1.3 million for five years – but first you have to pay to rebuild that old terminal and you’re going to get stuck with the bill for American border security, too. All of that is in addition to the operating subsidy, management fees, and incentives that the province pays Bay Ferries.
Fully-subsidizing the Yarmouth-to-Maine ferry service is a policy decision for the government. If the government wants to buy docks and build terminals and pay border guards in Maine, and pile on a hefty profit for the ferry’s operator, it can do that.
But it also has to account for that spending, and the opposition’s job is to scrutinize the government’s spending for probity and value.
Except, in Nova Scotia the deck is stacked, the fix is in, the government controls all the information and decides which parts of its deal with Bay Ferries see the light of day. An informed public debate is impossible, because only the government has the information.
The Liberal backbenchers who sit on the committee have, under direction from the government, done real damage to the cause of accountable government in Nova Scotia. They’ve diminished the role of the legislature, at the direction of the executive (the cabinet).
They are likely under the delusion that this is all just politics. It isn’t. Nova Scotians have a right to know what their government is doing and how it is spending their money. That right has been diminished at the hands of five Liberal backbenchers, some of whom likely got into public life for better reasons.
Maybe it’s time some of them ask themselves if they are serving the right master – the people who loan them their seats in the legislature, or the government that keeps those same people in the dark.
A government that works this hard to avoid scrutiny, can’t withstand scrutiny.