Katherine Fierlbeck sympathizes with officials in Nova Scotia's health department who "are working flat out" to handle the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
But as a health policy specialist, she says part of that work must include being accountable for what they are doing to keep people safe and to mitigate the hardship caused by the virus.
An example of that happened this week when Deputy Minister of Health Dr. Kevin Orrell and Nova Scotia's Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Robert Strang were called to Province House to answer questions from MLAs who form the House of Assembly's Standing Committee on Health.
"I'm sure that the last thing that they want to have to do is to prepare for being grilled, uncomfortably, on matters where the lay of the land changes and shifts continually, so I see where they're coming from but at the same time this is democratic accountability," said Fierlbeck, a political science professor at Dalhousie University, whose research includes health policy. "This is not a minor issue."
Although the committee sat for the first time in six months on Tuesday, there's no guarantee the governing Liberals, who hold a majority of votes, won't shut down the committees again if there is a resurgence of COVID-19.
Liberal members on the Health Committee, as well as those who sit on the Public Accounts Committee, have blocked attempts by their opposition colleagues to ensure they wouldn't be sidelined again, even with COVID-19.
"I think it's both disturbing and alarming," is the way one-time New Brunswick NDP Leader Elizabeth Weir characterized Thursday the actions of Nova Scotia's governing Liberals.
Weir has been a consultant on parliamentary matters for almost a decade, having shared her expertise with 28 governments worldwide.
"I can't think of a better time than a pandemic to have both government leaders and bureaucrats talking about the decisions that they've taken and what the impact of those decisions are," she said in a phone interview.
Premier Stephen McNeil has repeatedly suggested health officials had more important work to do than to appear before legislature committees, a view shared by former cabinet minister Margaret Miller, who voted against a motion for the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) to meet virtually, if need be.
Miller, who sits on PAC, suggested meetings online could be problematic.
"You know there are challenges also to virtual meetings," she said. "You know, there have been even through HR committee (Human Resources Committee), dropped calls, things like that. And I think it's important to actually be in the room."
The Human Resources Committee (HRC) is the one committee that has met virtually throughout the pandemic. By law, it must meet monthly to ratify cabinet appointments.
Weir called the work of all parliamentary committees "critically important."
"Parliamentary committees have always been part of the bedrock of our Canadian parliamentary system at both the provincial and federal levels," she said. "In fact most of the important work takes place in parliamentary committees that have essentially operated on very much of a bi-partisan level."
Fierlbeck said if the government was concerned health officials wouldn't be able to answer questions, or that those answers might shift over time, that's not enough to block the committee's work.
"It's very patronizing and paternalistic to say that the public will just be confused by the fact that there (is) uncertainty and nobody knows what's really going on or to say that the public will be upset or can't handle the fact that there is uncertainty," Fierlbeck said.
"We're big boys and girls.This is a democracy. We can handle the fact that our leaders might now really know what's going on or are themselves trying to struggle in the face of uncertainty and continual change."
Asked about Feirlbeck's comments while touring in Cape Breton on Thursday, McNeil would only say, "I appreciate their opinion."
He once again brushed aside concerns his party could block committee work.
"The committees are meeting and will meet regularly, what the question was if we have another spike of COVID-19," he said. "We can't predict that."
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