Standing Committees of the Legislative Assembly are supposed to provide an opportunity for MLAs from both the government and opposition sides of the House to delve into particular matters of special interest to government and the entire province. The Standing Committee on Public Accounts is one such committee, and the mandate on the government webpage is described as follows :
“The Standing Committee on Public Accounts is charged with matters concerning the Public Accounts of the Province, the annual report of the Auditor General, and fiscal management.”
But here’s the thing – Legislative Standing Committees are controlled by the governing Party in that they can ensure a majority of voting members on committees. As a result, any Motion advanced by Opposition members can be defeated by the government, even when those Motions would clearly ensure the mandate of the committee is better achieved.
When the government is engaged in a systematic cover-up of corruption – as is happening under the current Liberal government with the e-gaming scandal – the abuse of this power to defeat Opposition Motions is blatant, shameless, and completely inexcusable.
It’s actually painful to see just how often Opposition members attempted – unsuccessfully – to pass Motions to bring witnesses with intimate knowledge of e-gaming before the Public Accounts Standing Committee during the nine (9) Public Accounts meetings dealing with e-gaming held from October 19, 2016 to March 1, 2017.
During the November 2, 2016 Public Accounts Committee meeting, Brad Trivers put forward a Motion to bring “Garth Jenkins, Paul Jenkins, Melissa MacEachern, and Chris LeClair” before the committee to answer questions, and that Motion actually passed (see p. 154-157, of the November 2, 2016 transcript).
However, at the very next committee meeting, Liberal MLA Sonny Gallant put forward a motion to, as he matter-of-factly put it, “reverse the motion of last week.” Brad Trivers, in disbelief, demanded an explanation:
What quickly became clear is that a Liberal MLA on the committee had “dropped the ball” by not showing up at the previous meeting, so the Liberals didn’t have a majority vote to defeat the Motion – otherwise the Motion would not have passed. As PC MLA Sidney MacEwan pointed out, the shameless move to “reverse” the previous motion was evidence that the Liberal government had no intention of allowing Public Accounts to dig any deeper into the e-gaming scandal. As MacEwan stated:
Mr. MacEwen: Thank you, Chair. I wasn’t at the meeting last week. I couldn’t be here, as well, but I did listen and the motion was passed with a majority and I feel this is politics playing. Now that there’s a majority of Liberal members back on the committee it’s embarrassing that that’s obviously going on. [P.160 Public Accounts 9 November 2016].
We later learned from Bush Dumville during Question Period in the House, after he left the Liberals to become an independent MLA, that the decision to block access to witnesses apparently came from the Premier’s office, via Chief-of-Staff, Robert Vessey, and the Premier’s legal counsel, Spencer Campbell:
Bush Dumville: “My question is to the Premier: During the strategy planning with Liberal members and others on January 6th, 2017, Robert Vessey stated: ‘the Premier wants e-gaming put behind him.’ Next, Spencer Campbell stated, and I quote: ‘We are the government lawyers on this file.’ Were you aware that legal counsel, Spencer Campbell, was in attendance and providing legal advice to the committee?” [Hansard, April 10, 2018, p. 1446]
Whether the Premier knew what his Chief-of-Staff and legal counsel were up to directing Public Accounts committee members matters little – the reversal of that initial Motion to bring witnesses with first-hand knowledge of e-gaming before Public Accounts was now the rule, and the Liberal government would make sure there would be a Liberal “majority” at all subsequent meetings to block every Motion opposition members brought forward to bring witnesses, defeating them over, and over, and over again. For example:
Motion to bring Doug Clow, Michael Mayne, and Neil Stewart as witnesses to the committee (November 9, 2016) – Defeated;
Motion to bring Wes Sheridan and Robert Ghiz as witnesses to this committee (November 9, 2016) – Defeated;
Motion to bring Brian Douglas and Richard Gallant before the Committee (November 9, 2016) – Defeated;
Motion to bring Melissa MacEachern before the Committee (November 9, 2016) – Defeated;
Motion to bring Robert Vessey and Minister Henderson before the Committee (November 9, 2016) – Defeated;
Motion to bring Garth Jenkins, Paul Jenkins, Chris LeClair, Melissa MacEachern. before the Committee (November 18, 2016) – Defeated;
Motion to bring Mike O’Brien before the Committee (February 1, 2016) – Defeated;
Motion to bring Billy Dow before the Committee (February 22, 2016) – Defeated;
Motion to bring Tracey Cutcliffe and Michael Mayne before the Committee (February 22, 2016) – Defeated;
Motion to bring Gary Scales, Kevin Kiley, Steven Dowling and Katherine Tummon before the Committee (February 22, 2016) – Defeated;
In the last e-gaming committee meeting on March 1, 2017, we read in the transcript how Opposition PC Member Darlene Compton made one final, fruitless effort to bring key e-gaming witnesses before the committee:
Chair: Okay, clerk. If you’re ready, I’ll ask you to read that motion back.
Clerk Assistant: Sure: That the committee invite Chris LeClair, Melissa MacEachern, Neil Stewart, Robert Ghiz, Wes Sheridan, Bill Dow, Paul Jenkins, Mike O’Brien, Gary Scales, Kevin Kiley, Michael Mayne and Tracey Cutcliffe to appear before the committee.
Chair: Question is called: All those in favour of having these individuals come in to public accounts to answer questions, please signify by raising your hand. Motion defeated.
Another particularly disturbing, recent example of the Liberal government controlling the outcome of Standing Committee votes happened when the Standing Committee on Communities, Lands and Environment passed a motion in late 2017 to bring Vanco Farms, Cavendish Farms, and the Great Enlightenment Buddhist Institute Society (GEBIS) before the committee to discuss their land holdings.
The Motion originally passed with Liberal member support, but clearly upset some senior people within the government, especially Liberal MLA Allan Roach – who had just recently sold his house to Asian buyers (apparently associated with GEBIS) for a tidy sum of $750,000. Roach decided to insert himself onto the committee so he could put forward a Motion to reverse the previous Motion to have GEBIS appear before the committee!
In an embarrassing demonstration of how government can “whip” a vote, Liberal members of the committee who had previously decided to have GEBIS appear before the committee voted in lockstep to support Roach’s Motion to rescind the very same Motion they had previously supported and passed!
As Premier, I would end the tyranny of government dominance on all Standing Committees by having neutral, expert individuals appointed to moderate and Chair Committee meetings. There would be an equal number of voting members from both the Opposition and Government sides of the Legislative Assembly on all committees. In the event of a tie vote on a Motion, the appointed non-partisan Chair would cast the deciding vote.
A deciding vote by an appointed and independent Chairperson would not be “arbitrary,” but would need to comply with predetermined principles and guidelines designed to ensure fairness and continuity with government’s obligation to fulfil the particular mandate of each standing committee.
Chairs for the standing committees would be solicited through an open hiring process, and selected by a vote of the entire Legislative Assembly. These positions would be term appointments with specific qualifications specified and advertised to the general public.
Successful candidates would be expected to have expertise and experience in the related field (e.g. a retired Chartered Accountant with no partisan political affiliations for Public Accounts, etc.).