Liberal majority of no use as clock runs out at public accounts debate

Poor clock management and a bit of opposition filibustering led to a rare occasion where the governing Liberals could not flex their majority muscle at the legislature’s public accounts committee meeting on Wednesday.

At issue was an attempt by the Liberals to cancel the topic for next month’s meeting — the use of public-private partnerships for twinning the highway between Antigonish and Pictou counties — and move it instead to the natural resources and economic development committee, a committee that is not televised.

The topic, proposed by the NDP, was originally approved during the committee’s June meeting. Although Liberal members voiced opposition to the idea at the time, they did not vote against it and it was added to the list.

At last month’s meeting, Liberal members said the topic “diverted unintentionally” from a recent focus the government has had on calling topics covered by auditor general reports. But in trying to push through a vote — a vote their majority would have won — the Liberals ran out of time and the committee ended, as it is required to end, after two hours.

One last chance

Wednesday’s meeting marked the final chance for the Liberals to take the issue of using the public-private partnership model to build the new section of Highway 104 off the agenda for next month.

When it became clear they were up against the two-hour limit, the Liberals called for a one-hour extension of the meeting, something that requires unanimous consent of the committee and something opposition members would not grant.

That left about 10 minutes for the Liberals to pass their motion to change the agenda. However, NDP and Tory MLAs talked out the clock before the vote could take place.

‘A thorn in their side’

Following the meeting, Liberal MLA Brendan Maguire said his caucus was concerned the issue wasn’t something covered in an auditor general’s report. Although that’s a custom the Liberals have been pushing recently, the mandate of the committee, according to the legislature’s website, is to review “public spending, reports of the auditor general and any other financial matters respecting the public funds of the province.”

Maguire said his caucus was prepared to let the topic happen at another committee and allow opposition members to choose another topic for the September public accounts meeting. He said he thought the idea would have gained support had it been able to be discussed, but Progressive Conservative MLA Tim Halman noted that when provided an opportunity in the meeting, Maguire refused to elaborate on why he wanted to extend the meeting.

“We all know why he wanted to extend time — to get that topic off the agenda,” said Halman.

“I guess they just don’t want the topic because it’s a thorn in their side.”

‘Give us back the meetings’

New Democrat MLA Susan LeBlanc likewise had difficulty believing there were charitable intentions on the part of the Liberals.

“I just don’t buy that at all,” she said.

At previous meetings, the NDP noted the topic is prescient and appropriate because the auditor general has previously reported on problems with using the public-private partnership model to build schools. The model is also being used for some of the new hospital infrastructure projects.

LeBlanc said if the Liberals are concerned about the ability to get enough issues before the committee, they should revisit their decision to reduce the frequency of meetings.

“Give us back the meetings that you originally cut and we wouldn’t have to discuss this at all,” she said.

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