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GUEST OPINION: Protecting land for Islanders
Arrogance best explains the Liberal provincial government’s decision to tighten the purse strings on the outfit Nova Scotians trust to run their elections.
Elections Nova Scotia (ENS) is, necessarily and appropriately, independent from the government. ENS reports to the legislature, just like the auditor general and, like the auditor general, it submits its budget requests to a committee of the legislature.The reason for that independence – self-evident to thinking Nova Scotians but apparently beyond the comprehension of the Liberals who run the place – is to shield those organizations from political interference.
Yet, the Treasury Board – five Liberal partisans – decided to reject the positive recommendation of the all-party legislative committee and withhold from ENS roughly $2.7 million it needs to get ready for the next election.
Those five Grits weren’t trying to influence the conduct of the next election. Rather they were – instinctively or spitefully – flexing this government’s most used and abused muscle – that’s the one that triggers the command-and-control reflex.
An ill-conceived statement from the government – attributed to Justice Minister Mark Furey – huffed and puffed that Premier Stephen McNeil will call an election when he’s good and ready, and seemed to suggest the government will fund ENS’s preparations according to the dictates of the premier’s timetable. The leader of the Liberal Party of Nova Scotia shouldn’t be dictating or trying to dictate anything to the province’s Chief Electoral Officer.
Let’s pause here to ponder what would happen if the provincial government withheld funding that the auditor general said he needs to do his job. A political firestorm would be ignited because it would appear that the Liberals were using the power of the purse to silence the government’s most dependable critic.
Liberals should grasp that analogy, because they’ll recognize the political price they’d pay for messing with the auditor general. The political price should be no less severe for messing with a legitimate budget request – and one that will eventually be met – from ENS.
What we have here is a case of the executive branch of government – in this case represented by the Treasury Board – withholding funds that had been approved by the appropriate branch – the legislature. The President of the United States faces impeachment, in part, for a similar stunt.
The government would argue that its job is to spend taxpayers’ money wisely and that’s what’s behind its decision.
Except, as a practical matter, Chief Electoral Officer Richard Temporale’s budget is both justified and responsible, while the government’s denial is neither.
In a public statement this week, Temporale said he requested funding for election readiness this year so that ENS could be ready to run a general election by April 2020. The government’s denial of that funding pushes that date out to April 2021, provided the funding is approved and included in the next budget.
So what’s the problem, Liberals might ask, given that their majority government is likely to go to the polls sometime in its fourth year, 2021.
With a majority of just two seats, the McNeil government is one departure and one defection away from a minority, a lost confidence vote, and a forced election. Were that, or some other circumstance, to cause a provincial election before ENS’s preparations are complete, “both the quality and the integrity of the election may be at risk,” according to Temporale’s statement.
His election readiness timetable, therefore, is prudent and responsible. Again, the timetable forced on him by the government is neither.
There are good reasons why the Liberals may not want to think about the next election, but that doesn’t give them the right to starve the independent agency whose responsibility it is to make sure Nova Scotia is ready for an election, whenever it comes.
The government doesn’t seem to understand that some calls are best – and appropriately – left with the legislative branch. Indeed, in most other Canadian jurisdictions, the legislature makes the final decision about funding for election management bodies, without further reference to the government.
That sounds like a reform Nova Scotia could use but won’t see from this government.
Because Nova Scotia’s Liberal government is convinced it knows best. It knows better than ENS when the provincial election machinery should be ready to go, and it knows better than members of the legislature how to fund agencies that report to the legislature.
It’s wrong on both counts, but too arrogant to self-correct.