A debate over ongoing concerns about witnesses being blocked by the government majority on province’s public accounts committee became testy in the legislature Friday.
At one point, Opposition MLA Steven Myers, likened Transportation Minister Paula Biggar to Russian President Vladmir Putin, a statement Biggar took exception to and asked to be withdrawn.
It all began when the public accounts committee’s report to the legislature was tabled, which included 11 recommendations following 14 meetings over the last year.
Many of those meetings focused on the auditor general’s damning report on the province’s e-gaming scheme.
After the committee report was tabled Friday afternoon, MLAs stood to offer their reactions and thoughts. Their comments quickly turned to an ongoing trend at committee meetings where Opposition MLAs try to call witnesses to testify, but are blocked by the majority of Liberal MLAs on the committee who vote down many of the requests.
Opposition MLA Brad Trivers, who recently took over as chair of the committee, expressed frustration at numerous attempts to get key players involved in e-gaming that were thwarted by government MLAs.
“It really seems counterintuitive to the purpose of the public accounts committee and the work of this legislative assembly to work on behalf of Islanders to find out what happened (at committee),” he said.
Myers echoed these concerns.
Both he and Opposition Leader James Aylward recalled a presentation from former Liberal MP Shawn Murphy in 2012 who once chaired the federal public accounts committee. Murphy chastised the provincial committee for playing partisan politics, pointing out that deputies and senior bureaucrats regularly appear as witnesses in Ottawa.
“To me this committee, which should be the most powerful committee in government, isn’t because of partisanship,” Myers said.
He called for the structure of the public accounts committee to change to allow it to be made up of two MLAs from all three parties in the legislature to prevent vote blocking.
“Lopsided committees don’t allow committees to operate properly… even up the membership of the committees so they can do their work,” Myers said.
Green Leader Peter Bevan-Baker liked this idea, but went a step further, suggesting that since committees are structured proportionally based on the makeup of the legislative assembly, adopting a more proportional voting system would prevent lopsided governments as well as lopsided committees.
Government MLAs did not seem as enamoured with this notion. Education Minister Jordan Brown, who served as vice-chair of public accounts until he was promoted to cabinet last month, aired his own concerns about the committee meetings, saying he felt Myers had been disrespectful toward the auditor general.
Myers then turned around and began giving his own version of events to reporters in the media gallery from his seat in the house. Biggar raised a point of order, saying he should not be talking to the media while in the chamber. That’s when Myers fired back at Biggar.
“We’re not allowed to talk. Is that Vladimir Putin over there?”
Biggar asked for the statement to be withdrawn, which Myers did, but said he still felt Biggar was trying to limit his rights in the chamber.
In the end, the report of the committee was adopted unanimously by the legislature, but concerns about witness blocking were left unaddressed.