N.S. Budget debate proceeds but few notice

The following is the transcript of a routine day at Province House.

SPEAKER: Order, please. The time allotted for Oral Questions Put by Members to Ministers has mercifully expired. The honourable Government House Leader.

HON. MICHEL SAMSON: Mr. Speaker, would you please call the order of business, Government Motions.

SPEAKER: The honourable Government House Leader.

HON. MICHEL SAMSON: Mr. Speaker, I move that you do now leave the Chair and the House resolve itself into a Committee of the Whole on Supply unto Her Majesty.

SPEAKER: The honourable member for Kings North.

JOHN LOHR: It is my privilege to begin to speak on Supply on the budget that we’ve just had tabled in the House here.

SPEAKER: Order, please. The members can exit the Chamber quietly, if they can. The honourable member for Kings North has the floor. (emphasis added)

As the bolding suggests, question period is over, the Legislative assembly is going into committee to study the budget – and then there’s a noisy stampede for the door. And this is not an unusual event, resulting from some extra-chamber excitement like a public demonstration. It happens every day and has been happening for decades. The budget – government’s signature creation – comes up for debate and most MLAs exit, taking the media with them.

Last week, for four hours every day except Wednesday (opposition day), some members of the legislature, sitting as a committee, examined the spending estimates of the Department of Health and Wellness. At $4 billion, that department spends 40% of the provincial budget and accounts for over 10% of the provincial Gross Domestic Product. Health care is usually number one when pollsters ask people about the issue most important to them. Last week’s review of the health estimates came against a backdrop of media reports on violent homicides in long-term care facilities, chronic concerns in various communities about emergency room closures, inadequate mental health services and availability of family doctors. But if members of the public wanted to seek insight into how the budget impacts on these and other issues their only option was to sit in the public gallery for hours on end or watch abysmally-produced legislative television. If there was any news media coverage of the 16 hours of health estimates debate I could not find it.

Long established pattern 

Although it may be worse this year because of the Chronicle-Herald situation, the lack of coverage is par for the course. When I started as a legislative print reporter in Manitoba in 1970 we covered estimates debates, required by our editors to find nuggets of news in the back and forth between Ministers and inquiring opposition members. But coverage of legislative debates petered out as news budgets withered and editors’ tastes changed. The trend extended to parliamentary debates in Ottawa. Nowadays the most you can hope for is a story about time allotments for debate – http://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/wherry-time-allocation-1.3575754. As for the content of the debates themselves, you best look it up in Hansard, (Courtesy of the web: “Hansard is the traditional name of the transcripts of Parliamentary Debates in Britain and many Commonwealth countries (and provinces). It is named after Thomas Curson Hansard (1776–1833), a London printer and publisher, who was the first official printer to the parliament at Westminster”).

But when it comes to Estimates debates in Nova Scotia, Hansard is no immediate help. Unlike other Assembly proceedings (such as question period, throne speech debate and the often trivial statements and resolutions by members) complete transcripts of the debates are not published until several months later. Requests for specific time periods may be entertained by the Hansard office but any member of the public wanting to scan the whole of the debate without sitting through 16 agonizing hours is out of luck. And that’s still not the worst of it. Only five departments are examined during the 40 hours allotted to estimates in the legislative chamber, with the cameras present and the delayed transcription available. The remainder (that would be 15 departments) are shunted off to the Red Room where there are no cameras, no transcripts and, invariably, no journalists. Whatever happens in the Red Room generally stays in the Red Room.

(To digress back to the statements and resolutions, as the legislative session neared its conclusion this week Hansard overflowed with them. On May 10 there were 40 statements by members placed on the record ranging from the solemn (the 24th anniversary of the Westray mine disaster), the political (emergency room closures) to the cloying ( Mother’s Day carnations for seniors). That was modest compared with the 182 resolutions recorded for posterity that day. Topping the list, Resolution 3582 celebrated the 90th anniversary of an Antigonish nursing home, provider of “fully personalized services for three generations.” Bringing up the rear, Resolution 3764 celebrated the 50th year of the Petpeswick Yacht club, said to enjoy “a beautiful location overlooking scenic Petpeswick Inlet.” In between, Resources Minister Lloyd Hines put on the record individual tributes to 18 young people in his riding who attended a science fair in Port Hawkesbuty. No wonder Hansard staff don’t get around to producing transcripts of budget deliberations).

The Missing News

This haphazard way of scrutinizing and recording the budget estimates seems out of synch with the accountability fetish that otherwise dominates the media and many opposition politicians. What with parliamentary budget officers, crusading auditors-general and frequent freedom of information filings, reporters are forever leaping to defend “taxpayers’ money.” But not when it comes to the budget. Maybe they are intimidated by the big numbers – $10 billion is a lot. Or maybe it’s just me who’d like to see a bit more systematic drilling down into that number by the media and the opposition at budget time.

The way it is now brings to mind the philosophical question about hearing the tree falling in the forest if no one’s around. If something is said during the estimates debate but there are no journalists around to report it (and no transcripts to check) is it news? I’ve never been one for such profundities. But this is the age of the citizen journalist so I believe that question can be answered in the affirmative.

I watched nearly three hours of proceedings on legislative TV last Monday as examination of the health estimates was beginning. In my humble opinion the Health minister made news when he provided  more detail about how the Trudeau government plans to meet (or not) its commitment to provide additional funding for home care some time in the near future. This home care money is meant to partly compensate the provinces for the Liberals’ decision to keep in place the harsh health transfer regime imposed by the Harper government. (For those who have not been following the story, increases of 3% are in store for next and subsequent years, not the 6% increase that have been the rule since the well known 2004 Health Accord.)

Leo Glavine advised the House that the Trudeau government’s health offer (he called it an accord, maybe for old time’s sake) will provide the provinces with annual increases of that 3% a year “with a little bit more for home care, shared across the country.” On the question of whether provinces with older populations could expect more of the “little bit more” – a request from regional leaders for at least the last five years – Glavine said maybe. He provided insight into how the home care money may be distributed across the country. It will be on a per capita basis, although some provinces may get more if they can come up with “innovative” ways for providing home care. He also advised that Nova Scotia is working with the other Atlantic provinces to come up with such an “innovative” proposal to attract federal dollars – sort of a political version of “Dragon’s Den.” Looks like news to me – something along the lines of “Liberals tell provinces to sing for their supper.”

-30-

 

About Richard Starr

RICHARD STARR has had careers as a journalist, public servant, broadcaster, political staffer and freelance policy adviser. He is author of numerous newspaper and magazine articles, appearing in everything from Atlantic Insight to Atlantic Progress. A lifelong student of Maritime history, Starr is married to playwright and former MP Wendy Lill. They live in Dartmouth.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s