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VIBERT: Liberals determined to contain critics

Jim Vibert
Jim Vibert - SaltWire Network

Keeping the lid on healthcare has become an obsession for Nova Scotia’s Liberal government.

In the past couple of weeks, close observers got a look at the Liberals’ strategy to manage the provincial government’s gravest political threat — growing discontent with the quality of, and access to healthcare.

So far, the strategy relies on two tactics: containment and counterattack.

On successive days this week, at legislative committee meetings, Liberal backbenchers dutifully barred the door to health professionals and anyone else whose truth may prove inconvenient, embarrassing or worse for the government.

With obsequious fealty and a determination to curry favour with Premier Stephen McNeil so that they may one day sit among the chosen at the cabinet table, the Grit backbenchers mindlessly trampled long-standing traditions and rules of the assembly, in the service of censorship.

Dartmouth North New Democrat Susan Leblanc got it right. The Liberals are railroading legislative committees, and that’s “an abomination of democracy.”

Once again, the Liberals tried to unilaterally change the rules of the public accounts committee to limit the government’s political exposure. This time it’s to keep health issues out of the committee altogether. Last year, the Liberals succeeded in limiting the committee’s agenda to topics covered in the auditor general’s reports.

While they bristle under the restriction to stick to the auditor’s choice of topics, opposition MLAs did just that this week when they tried to get committee meetings on mental health, the family doctor shortage, and homecare contracts — all matters covered in the auditor’s reports.

But the Liberal majority voted those subjects off the agenda, claiming health issues now belong with the legislature’s health committee.

That’s containment.

The health committee only meets a dozen times a year, while the public accounts committee meets weekly over much of the year. So, by punting issues from public accounts to the health committee the Liberals effectively kill them. They’ll never make it on to the health committee’s limited timetable.

Plus, the day before the public accounts meeting, the Liberals used their majority to contain the agenda of the health committee to a mix of subjects they believe reflect well on the government, while blocking the Conservatives’ efforts to invite doctors and NDP efforts to invite paramedics.

By longstanding tradition, government and opposition MLAs divide agenda choices between them, but the Liberals have trashed that tradition and now effectively dictate the committee’s agenda.

The Liberals understand that while they can’t completely silence critics in the health arena, they can contain their criticism, in this case by denying them the elevated platform afforded by a legislative committee.

And when critics — often doctors — do manage to penetrate the public consciousness with first-hand accounts of failures in the healthcare system, there’s generally a counterattack.

Counterattack has been a trademark of the Liberal government almost from its arrival in office in 2013. When it feels some heat from teachers, or doctors, or any other identifiable group or individuals, the government takes aim at the messenger rather than the issue.

Nova Scotians were treated to a prime example recently, when both the premier and Health Minister Randy Delorey attacked a Cape Breton physician for using what they called “inflammatory” rhetoric.

The substance of Dr. Jeanne Ferguson’s comments — the dangerous lack of medical resources in Cape Breton is risking and costing lives — they ignored.

A strategy of containment and counterattack has a pernicious effect on informed public debate. It silences voices that Nova Scotians and their elected representatives — both government and opposition — need to hear in order to understand what’s going on in healthcare beyond the rose-tinted perspective available in the health bureaucracy’s echo chamber. It ignores the substance of justified criticism, in favour of attacking the critic. In short, to quote from the premier’s recent counterattack, it “does nothing to advance the discussion.”

In a span of fewer than 10 days, the Liberals effectively contained their most credible healthcare critics — doctors, paramedics and other professionals — and served notice yet again that any who step out of line to speak ill of the government’s management of healthcare can expect a personal attack from a powerful source in return.

It’s a chilling environment. It discourages open dialogue on important public issues. But that matters not a whit to Nova Scotia’s Liberals who are convinced that it works for them politically.

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