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N.S. opposition says COVID-19 shutdown of committees prevents oversight

HALIFAX — Opposition parties say Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil's refusal to reactivate several key committees of the legislature due to COVID-19 is harming public accountability and democracy in the province.
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HALIFAX — Opposition parties say Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil's refusal to reactivate several key committees of the legislature due to COVID-19 is harming public accountability and democracy in the province.

McNeil confirmed Thursday that the all-party health and public accounts committees will remain closed this summer.

The premier told reporters the government hasn't authorized online or other forms of committee hearings because he wants public health officials to "focus on the health and well-being of Nova Scotians."

However, Progressive Conservative leader Tim Houston says the committees are part of effective oversight and a "fundamental part of our democracy."

The Opposition leader has sent a letter to Dr. Robert Strang, the chief medical officer of health, saying that as thousands of Nova Scotians return to work, "members of the standing committees of the Nova Scotia legislature should also resume their legislative work."

The province announced Thursday that gatherings of up to 50 people for special social events, faith gatherings, sports, weddings, funerals and cultural events are permitted.

Businesses have been reopening as well, though enterprises that are too small to ensure social distancing can only have 10 people on their premises at one time.

Houston says safety can be ensured at committee meetings, either by using online systems or through in-person meetings with social distancing.

"The expanded limit of people gathering to 50 is even more reason for the premier to let us do our jobs and get back to committee business for the sake of democracy," said Houston in an email.

"When the Premier insinuates that committees are a waste of time for public health officials, he is assuming that no good ideas or suggestions will come out of the meeting. This is the time when public health officials would be anxious to learn new perspectives and insights so that the system can be better equipped moving forward."

Following cabinet on Thursday, McNeil stood by his position, noting the province's budget has already passed and that he provides regular media briefings.

He said it's more important the health officials focus on their role running the health and long-term care systems during the pandemic, rather than preparing for committee meetings.

"You would have me have public health prepare for these committee meetings (and) take time away from the health and well-being of Nova Scotians. It's nonsensical," said the premier.

New Democrat Leader Gary Burrill has also called for a resumption of the committees, and said it can be done safely with social distancing.

"It's by means of these legislative committees that we can have government in the open, and government in the open is what democracy is about," he said in an interview.

"When you have government behind closed doors, we have no end of evidence that the result is never good."

Chris Parsons, the provincial co-ordinator for the Nova Scotia Health Coalition, said in a news release that the legislature's health committee is a forum where there can be public discussion about how well the province handled the first wave of COVID-19.

"The best thing we can do to ensure that the province is ready for a second wave of COVID-19 is to have a real, open and good faith discussion about the response to the first wave," said Parsons, whose group advocates for the public health-care system.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 19, 2020.

Michael Tutton, The Canadian Press




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