Democracy, Nova Scotian-style

Richard Starr had already got me thinking about how centralized power is in Nova Scotia before Auditor General Kim Adair drove the point home for me on Tuesday.

Premier Stephen McNeil

Premier Stephen McNeil, NS COVID-19 Update, 24 August 2020

Starr has been tracking this province’s anti-democratic tendencies for some time now via his Starr’s Point blog, and back in early November, he provided a handy list of former Liberal Premier Stephen McNeil’s accomplishments in the field. Over an eight-year mandate, McNeil succeeded in:

  • Eliminating elected school boards;
  • Amalgamating nine district health authorities into one;
  • Reducing the number of days the legislature sits;
  • Extending the number of hours legislature sits daily (legislation by exhaustion);
  • Curtailing the role of the public accounts committee.

Not to mention running the province essentially single-handedly during the height of the COVID epidemic.

You might think this would be enough to secure his place at the top of the autocrats league table, but that just means you haven’t been paying enough attention to his successor.


Hold my beer

Tory Premier Tim Houston came out of the gates at speed, and not even two years into his first mandate, he has managed, by Starr’s reckoning, to:

  • fire all but one of the directors of the Nova Scotia Health Authority board
  • abolish Tourism Nova Scotia and its board
  • usurp the power of the utility board to set electricity rates
  • nullify bylaws passed by Halifax regional council
  • dissolve the boards of Nova Scotia Business Inc and Innovacorp
Nova Scotia Premier-designate Tim Houston

Nova Scotia Premier-designate Tim Houston during an August 2021 COVID briefing. (Photo by Zane Woodford)

To quote Starr:

The Houston PCs are centralizing power at the executive level at a great rate while silencing other voices, both inside the legislature and beyond. After just 15 months in power they are on track to do more damage to participatory democracy than the Liberals did in eight years.

Houston’s most recent salvo (and bear with, because this is not uncomplicated) was another assault on the independence of the UARB in the form of a “five-page letter calling on the Utility and Review Board…to reject a rate increase agreement—a so-called settlement agreement—between Nova Scotia Power and major customer advocates.”

Starr accuses Houston of “populism” which he defines as “politics that pits ‘the people’ against ‘the establishment’” but I’d argue what Houston is up to faux-populism, given that Houston IS the establishment. (I’ve listened multiple interviews with the American historian Thomas Frank about his 2020 history of populism, The People, No, and have come round to his view that populism is actually a positive thing that has been distorted to bolster “the ruling elite by fragmenting the working class.” But I digress.)

Basically, Houston’s government passed Bill 212, which required the UARB to hold any non-fuel increase in Nova Scotia Power’s rates to 1.8%. The settlement agreement the premier is now urging the board to reject, explains Starr:

…incorporated the terms of Bill 212, but with the cost of fuel going up even more, the proposed rate increase would be 6.9 percent next year and again in 2024. And irony of ironies, that proposed increase is higher than the hike that was on the table before Houston’s government went to all the trouble of stripping the UARB of its independence.

Moreover, Starr argues,  if the board bows to the self-declared “voice of the people” Houston and rejects the settlement agreement, it will also be rejecting the work of:

…the Consumer Advocate, the Small Business Advocate, lawyers representing large industry, Dalhousie University and municipal utilities as well as representatives of the Ecology Action Center and the Affordable Energy Coalition.

Houston’s letter, says Starr:

…makes clear his contempt for them all, suggesting that in signing the settlement agreement those establishment intervenors are either scofflaws or dupes of Nova Scotia Power.

I have to admit, this take on Houston’s kerfuffle with the UARB hadn’t occurred to me until I saw it spelled out—I am as guilty as the next person of automatically seeing Nova Scotia Power as the villain in any given situation (and don’t get me wrong, I still see a privately owned power corporation prioritizing shareholder profit and CEO compensation over the best interests of the people of Nova Scotia as a villain, it’s just that I don’t think in this instance Houston is a hero.)


Unchecked spending

It was with all of this fresh in mind on Tuesday that I picked up Nova Scotia’s Auditor General Kim Adair’s 2022 Financial Report, which takes aim at the lack of transparency and accountability around extra government spending.

I can’t call the report a “revelation” because Adair herself acknowledges the problem has been addressed by past AGs, but the amount of money involved has been growing significantly.

As Adair explains:

In Nova Scotia under the Finance Act there is no requirement for the legislature to review, vote on, or approve additional appropriations.

If, during the year, a department determines it cannot remain within its allotted budget, it must obtain approval for “additional appropriations,” but under the Finance Act, that funding is approved by the Governor in Council:

The Governor in Council is the Lieutenant Governor of Nova Scotia acting by and with the advice of Executive Council. Executive Council is the decision-making authority for the Government and its decisions are shown in Orders in Council (OICs). Executive Council members are chosen by the Premier who serves as its President, meaning requests for additional appropriations are submitted to the decision-making members of Government and are not voted on by the House of Assembly.

And these are not piddling amounts of money. Adair says “additional appropriations” grew 200% between 2013 and 2022, from $263 million to $896 million. During this 10-year period, which saw, at various times, all three major political parties in power, this additional spending totaled $4.7 billion.

Graph showing additional appropriations by the Nova Scotia government, 2011 to 2022.

Moreover, those orders in council (OICs) don’t provide much in the way of spending details and what information is released is made available after the spending has been approved.

This rather loosey-goosey approach to appropriations makes Nova Scotia an outlier in Canada, where, writes Adair:

…while there are nuances in legislation, in almost all other jurisdictions in Canada (this includes the provinces and federal government), there is a requirement for additional appropriations to return to the legislature for debate and approval through a supplementary estimate or other process.

Chart comparing provincial and federal legislation governing additional appropriations.

Adair ends with the recommendation that:

…the Department of Finance and Treasury Board assess whether the current practice for the authorization of additional appropriations provides for adequate accountability and transparency over expenditure of public funds by Members of the Legislative Assembly and consider whether changes are necessary to align with legislated practices elsewhere in Canada.

Which the Department of Finance and Treasury Board (FTB) presumably did, before deciding that, actually, everything is just fine as it is:

While other jurisdictions may have different processes, FTB is confident the spending authorities and processes permitted under the Finance Act are appropriately transparent and support public accountability.

The AG, to put it another way, should save her breath to cool her soup.

So, as 2022 draws to a close, we’re left with the knowledge that our current premier may give our former premier a run for his money in the control freak department and that one of the tools at his disposal is the ability to approve millions in additional public spending without troubling our elected representatives in the legislature with the details.

What, as I realize I ask frequently in conclusion to these pieces, could possibly go wrong?