The Legislature’s Financial Watchdog Needs Teeth

I just spent three weeks straight examining a parade of witnesses from government departments and Crown corporations as a member of the Public Accounts and Crown Corporations Committees. Our job is to ensure that they are spending their budgets efficiently and effectively. The questions that guide our committee work should be things such as: are departments achieving the objectives of the policies and programs they are required to implement, and are they doing so economically? When the Auditor General carries out an investigation, it is our committee’s job to examine her findings, pursue accountability, and ensure her recommendations are fully implemented. Our committee reports back to the Legislative Assembly with any observations or recommendations we feel are important to bring forward for action.

Public Accounts Committee hearings are not supposed to be mini question periods where opposition members look to score political points from questioning Deputy Ministers. Nor is it our committee’s job to question the actual policies the Departments or Crown corporations have been asked by government to implement.

Our responsibility is to provide financial oversight and public accountability. New Brunswickers have a right to know how their money is being spent, and have a right to expect that our committee will redress any problems we identify or those uncovered by the Auditor General. In the past, the committee’s work has been undermined by partisanship and government interference. Lately, our committee has been working to improve its effectiveness, which has caught deputy ministers and Crown corporations CEOs somewhat off-guard.

When Ambulance New Brunswick appeared before committee, it became clear to me that we had the wrong person in the witness chair. The CEO of Ambulance New Brunswick told me he is actually an employee of Nova Scotia-based Medavie Health Services, not of our Crown Corporation. His job is to run NB EMS, the Medavie subsidiary which runs Ambulance New Brunswick, one of 11 other subsidiary companies in Nova Scotia, PEI, Ontario, Saskatchewan, Alberta, and the state of Massachusetts. True, he and his staff manage the $100 million we provide to run Ambulance New Brunswick and to pay Medavie Health Services’ management fees and performance bonuses. But Medavie’s ten year contract was coming to an end, and I wanted to know what process was being followed to determine whether it should be renewed or not. This was not a question to be put to the private manager of the publicly-owned Ambulance New Brunswick. My question would have to wait for the Deputy Minister of Health.

When the Deputy Minister of Health appeared before the Committee, he said he couldn’t say whether any steps were taken to evaluate Ambulance New Brunswick’s performance under the private management of Medavie Health Services. That was a matter for cabinet. And as we know, the Premier and cabinet have decided to privatize the management of our Extra-Mural program and give it to Medavie as well, increasing our costs for this much loved health care service.

It’s not just management jobs that are being contracted out. The Departments of Social Development and Education entered into multi-million dollar contracts in 2013 with the global consulting company, Ernst and Young to advise them on how to cut their budgets.

The Deputy Ministers of Health and Social Development had received political direction from on high in the former Conservative government ordering them to make large cuts in their budgets as quickly as possible. An army of consultants from Ernst and Young were to figure out how to achieve this.

This cost the Department of Education more than $6 million and the Department of Social Development paid $13 million. The agreements set caps on the total per diems paid to the consultants and on their travel and accommodation costs, however there were no caps set on the performance fees they might earn. Initially, the consultants were to be paid performance fees based on a percentage of the budget savings that were achieved from the cuts they recommended. Somewhere, someone in government had the contracts changed to pay the performance fees based on predicted savings rather than on the amount of money actually saved.

The Deputy Ministers from Education told our committee that they never paid any performance fees in the end. However, the Department of Social Development paid millions. The problem for our committee was there wasn’t a single public servant remaining in the employ of the Department of Social Development who was involved in the negotiation or implementation of the agreement with Ernst and Young – not even the clerk who took the minutes at their meetings. With no one to ask why the Department paid performance fees on predicted savings rather than on actual ones, it was impossible to get to the bottom of this mystery.

To do the job the public expects of us, our committee requires greater authority from the Legislative Assembly; to subpoena witnesses, put them under oath, and compel the release of documents. We need a researcher, so members are not reliant on political staff for research and analysis. And the Premier must tell his political staff to stop interfering in the work of the committee. The public deserves no less.

David Coon is the leader of the Green Party of New Brunswick and the MLA for Fredericton-South.