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VIBERT: Legislature’s health committee a sham

Jim Vibert
Jim Vibert - SaltWire Network

Rather than tackle “the challenges in the health-care system” with gusto, the Liberals on the Nova Scotia legislature’s new health committee prefer to ease into them slowly, like a tired old body might slide into a hot bath.

How else do you explain why the Liberals limited the committee to 12 meetings a year — a total of about 18 hours of actual committee work annually?

Surely those five Grit backbenchers — committee Chair Gordon Wilson (Clare-Digby); Suzanne Lohnes-Croft (Lunenburg); Keith Irving (Kings South); Rafah DiCostanzo (Clayton Park West); and Ben Jessome (Hammond Plains-Lucasville) — don’t honestly believe the committee’s mandate can be met working a 90-minute month.

Of course they don’t.

The mandate — “to find solutions to challenges in the health-care system” — served its political purpose when the committee was announced. Likewise, the Liberal backbenchers served their political purpose at the committee’s inaugural meeting when they flexed their majority muscle to contain the government’s political exposure.

The languid Liberals’ timetable makes a mockery of the committee’s mandate, but that no longer matters much to the government. The Liberals’ political asset is the credit they’ll claim for striking the committee.

In case it still needs saying, this committee is about politics not health.

Back in September, the Liberals were looking to turn the page on a rough spring session of the legislature during which they changed the rules of the public accounts committee, restricting it to subjects already covered in the auditor general’s reports. The change made the once-potent committee virtually redundant.

While campaigning for the job he now holds, Conservative leader Tim Houston floated the idea of beefing up legislative committees to make the government more accountable. His proposal included a standing committee on health.

The government liked the optics of that, and in September it fired up the spin machine and government house leader Geoff MacLellan announced formation of just such a committee.

“Health is a top priority for this government,” MacLellan said in the government news release that went on to boast that MLAs of all stripes would “work together to find solutions to challenges in the health-care system.”

Not long into the committee’s first meeting, it was obvious there is a limit to the Liberals’ willingness to work with the opposition. Before the meeting adjourned, that limit was established as one afternoon every four to five weeks.

For the government, the health committee is a worthwhile political gambit for a couple of reasons. It gives Liberals another item for the list they’ll use to bolster their commitment to health care. And it’s useful in answering critics of the government’s tactics to avoid scrutiny, like the evisceration of the public accounts committee.

The Liberal brain trust no doubt took note of the potentially troubling narrative developing around the government’s aversion to even normal scrutiny and its efforts to foil attempts to hold it accountable.

Enter a new standing committee dedicated to health as proof that the government is willing to be accountable for the most vital public service the province provides — health care.

Alas, even when it tries to appear accountable, this government can’t help itself, and so the Liberals arrived at the first meeting of the health committee with a singular goal — to limit the potential for political damage by limiting the opposition’s opportunity to dredge up issues and hold the government’s feet to the fire. In short, to avoid accountability.

Twelve meetings a year with the Liberals setting the agenda for half of them got the job done.

In 18 hours of hearings spread across the entire year, the committee won’t even touch on many of the problems with health care. But then, that was always the plan. The government would prefer that those problems remain unexamined, at least in public.

Few Nova Scotians are so naïve as to believe a committee of the legislature can make meaningful improvements to the province’s struggling health care system. But there was some hope that a legislative committee could push bureaucrats beyond the usual platitudes and talking points and get to some unvarnished truthes about what’s happening in, or to health care in Nova Scotia.

That hope was dashed at the committee’s first meeting. It’s a shame, but this committee’s a sham.

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