Q53. Do you have any advice for citizens presenting to the Law Amendments Committee on Bill 59 (Accessibility Act)?

The LAC hearings on Bill 59 will be much better than usual

A53. I have written posts on the Law Amendments Committee, how it really works, and some tips on how to make an effective presentation.

The LAC hearings that were held on March 2 and 3, 2017, on Bill 59 (Accessibility Act) had some unique features that made them better than most.

Bill 59 received first reading on November 2, 2016, second reading the following day, and moved on to the Law Amendments Committee on November 7, 2016.

Many presenters at the Law Amendments Committee were critical of the bill itself, and critical of the lack of facilities for persons with disabilities at the LAC hearings. It appears the government was taken aback by the criticism. As a result, the government decided not to move the bill any further in the five-step law-making process, at least in the Fall 2016 sitting of the House.

For the LAC hearings on March 2 and 3, 2017,  arrangements were made for American Sign Language interpreters, sighted guides, and Communication Access Realtime Translation (CART), as well as a teleconferencing option. These arrangements are, at least in my experience, a first for the LAC.

It is extremely rare for the LAC to hold hearings outside of a legislative session. There was a distinct benefit for citizens wishing to appear at the Bill 59 hearings: the time pressure on government MLAs, which is one of the reasons the LAC process is normally so unsatisfactory for citizens, was entirely absent. All MLAs were polite and attentive and gave presenters every consideration. That, unfortunately, is not the norm.

At the conclusion of the LAC hearings, the government said it would take time to consider what amendments, if any, to make to Bill 59. The next step in the law-making process is Committee of the Whole House, and that cannot begin until the legislature is back in session.

My advice for advocates for persons with disabilities is to seek to be part of the decision-making about amendments before, during and after the LAC hearings. The real decision-makers on Bill 59 will not be the members of the LAC, but rather the minister, the minister’s staff, and the premier’s office staff. Meetings and other communications with those decision-makers can take place at any time. As I’ve explained in another post, a presentation at the LAC should not be the first or only step that advocates take.

Postscript: After this post was written, Bill 59 passed through Committee of the Whole House and third reading, and received Royal Assent on April 28, 2017. It is now the Accessibility Act, chapter 2 of the Acts of 2017. It comes into force on proclamation.

 

Q43. Do you have any advice on how citizens can engage with committees?

Most committees don’t function well; there are better ways to get things done

A43. My general advice to citizens is that legislative committees don’t function well in Nova Scotia, and so it is not a good use of citizens’ time to try to engage with them. There are more effective ways for citizens to get things done.

The only committee that puts the citizen at the centre of its hearings is the Law Amendments Committee (LAC). It is possible for a citizen to make an impactful presentation at the LAC, but the citizen should also be realistic about how the LAC really works. Appearing at the LAC should be a last resort, not the only thing the citizen does.

The Public Accounts Committee is usually considered the most important committee, but it never hears directly from citizens. The witnesses are almost always senior administrators of government departments and agencies. A citizen with a concern about the spending of public money can be more effective by contacting directly the Auditor General, the Ombudsman, or an MLA who is likely to be sympathetic.

There are five standing committees that focus on a policy area: Community Services, Economic Development, Human Resources, Resources, and Veterans Affairs. Notice that there is no committee to deal with big departments like Health, Justice and Environment. The Human Resources Committee covers education issues.

There are several reasons why the five subject-matter standing committees are ineffective:

  1. They meet only once per month at most, and not at all in the summer. That’s too few meetings to develop any real momentum or expertise.
  2. The committees all have a majority of government MLAs. The agenda is set by majority vote. As a result, difficult or controversial items are rarely placed on the agenda. The government MLAs usually want only good-news stories that highlight some positive aspect of government policy.
  3. MLAs’ perception is that they do not get any electoral reward from their committee work, and so they don’t invest much effort in the committee’s work. They go, they listen attentively and politely, then they leave. Nothing changes.
  4. The committees rarely receive media coverage. This is the result of points 1, 2 and 3 above, but also reinforces MLAs’ lack of interest.

I have never seen one of the five policy-oriented standing committees have any influence on government policy, and I’ve been watching Nova Scotia politics for a long time. That is why I recommend citizens pursue more effective avenues: approach MLAs, departments, ministers, reporters, the Auditor General, or the Ombudsman. Appearing before a subject-matter standing committee does not add value.

A select committee is different. A select committee is established because the government isn’t sure what to do on a specific policy issue, and is (usually) interested in hearing what recommendations the MLAs on the committee can come up with. A citizen who is interested in the subject-matter of a select committee would be well-advised to send a written submission to the committee, and if possible, to make a verbal submission at a committee hearing.

Nova Scotia currently has no select committees.

Q42. What is the Public Accounts Committee? How does it work?

The PAC is the most important of all the House committees

A42. The Public Accounts Committee (PAC) is a standing committee of the House of Assembly. It has a broad mandate to look at every aspect of government spending.

Most people would consider the PAC to be the most important (by far) of all the legislative committees.  It is the only committee that meets every week, instead of every month. It is always chaired by an MLA from the opposition. Its chair is paid more than other committee chairs. It is the only committee that meets in the legislative chamber, instead of in the committee room in One Government Place. It is the only committee whose proceedings are broadcast on Legislative TV. Reporters generally pay close attention to what the PAC is doing.

The PAC, like other committees, has nine members: five Liberals, two Progressive Conservatives, and two New Democrats. The current chair is Allan MacMaster, the PC MLA for the constituency of Inverness.

One of the main reasons the PAC is more effective than other committees is that it works closely with the Auditor General. The Auditor General is an independent officer of the House of Assembly who audits the government’s financial statements and regularly conducts other audits of government operations. The Auditor General’s reports provide the PAC with a ready-made agenda that is not under the government’s control.

Another reason the PAC is more effective than other committees is that its mandate is backwards-looking (how was public money spent?) rather than forward-looking (how should public money be spent)? The backward-looking orientation means that documents and witnesses are available that give PAC hearings a more “grounded” feeling that other committees.

Nevertheless, there are limits to how effective the PAC can be. The PAC’s agenda is set by a majority vote of the members. A majority government has a majority on the PAC too, so effectively the government MLAs set any agenda items other than the Auditor General reports. As a result, the government members tend to be quite keen in the first year or two, when the Auditor General’s audits cover actions of the previous government. They become less enthusiastic when the audits start to cover the actions of their own government. In these circumstances, the PAC can become quite dull, as the government MLAs simply won’t agree to put anything controversial on the agenda.

The PAC can call anyone as a witness, but typically the witnesses are a department’s or agency’s most senior administrators. Ministers never appear as witnesses at PAC, so the discussion tends to be much less partisan, and much more informative, than Question Period in the House of Assembly.

The PAC meets on most Wednesday mornings (except in the summer) from 9:00am to 11:00am. 

A meeting typically starts with an opening statement from the witness, followed by one round of questioning of 20 Minutes from each caucus, followed by another round of about 10 minutes, depending on how much time is left. The witness then has the opportunity to make a closing statement, but they usually don’t. If reporters are there, there is usually a scrum with the witness and the MLAs outside the main door of the legislative chamber.

Q41. What is a committee?

Committees are formed to allow MLAs to develop expertise; but in Nova Scotia they don’t function well

A41. A committee is a group of nine MLAs who meet regularly to discuss some aspect of government business. Each committee has a different membership and MLAs are assigned to committees by their caucus.

There is lots of good information about committees available on the legislature website.

There are two kinds of committee: a standing committee and a select committee. (I’m not counting Committee of the Whole House, which includes all MLAs, because it’s not at all like the other committees.)

The difference between them is simple: a standing committee is permanent, and a select committee is temporary.

A select committee is formed to address a specific issue. Once its report is submitted, the select committee is dissolved. The House of Assembly currently has no select committees.

The House of Assembly currently has ten standing committees. In alphabetical order, they are: Assembly Matters, Community Services, Economic Development, Human Resources, Internal Affairs, Law Amendments, Private & Local Bills, Public Accounts, Resources and Veterans Affairs.

Of these, citizens are most likely to encounter the Law Amendments Committee, which is the third stage of the five-stage law-making process. I have written separate posts on what the Law Amendments Committee is, how it really works, and some tips on how to make a more effective presentation.

The Assembly Matters and Internal Affairs committees deal with internal administrative matters such as procedure and funding. I’ve never heard of citizens engaging directly with these committees.

Of the remaining six committees, the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) is the most important. It meets weekly and has a broad mandate to inquire into accountability for how public funds are spent. I’ve written a separate post about the Public Accounts Committee.

The other five committees (Community Services, Economic Development, Human Resources, Resources, and Veterans Affairs) generally meet monthly, except in the summer. They sometimes hear from organizations outside government. Unfortunately, these committees have little or no impact on government policy. Furthermore, there is no committee to deal with big departments like Health, Justice or Environment. I’ll write more about these standing committees in a future post, and how citizens can get the most out of them.