Accountability

Opposition questions government on travel expenses

Legislative oversight committee on public money questions bureaucracy on expense reporting

MLA Tim Houston answers media questions after committee meeting
Opposition MLA Tim Houston says he still has questions as to whether taxpayers are getting value for ministers’ expenses.   Blake Prendergast

Opposition MLAs took aim at the provincial government for not knowing how its ministers are filing expense claims.

MLA Tim Houston was quick during his questioning to point to the public outrage he saw at the $35,000 in expense claims that former energy minister Andrew Younger accumulated in eight months during 2015.

“For the premier to be surprised by this particular minister’s travel and not know what (he) was doing on the trips, (…) if (the premier) had access to information, maybe he shouldn’t be surprised.”

Controversial MLA expenses have a long history in this province.

Questions from Houston and the other members on the standing committee on public accounts were directed to Catherine Blewett, the head of the public service, who was invited to testify about the province’s ministerial expense policy.

Blewett said that the ministers’ expenses, and those of their executive assistants, are now available online.

Houston said, “in fairness, the stuff that’s available online is not particularly user-friendly because it’s all PDF and you have to troll through it.”

A screenshot of ministerial expenses
A screenshot of a PDF breakdown of the minister of community services’ expenses for an event in October 2015.   N.S. Executive Council Office

Houston requested that the Executive Council Office provide a spreadsheet of total expenses, both budgeted and claimed, organized by minister. He said the premier might wish to request a similar spreadsheet to avoid being shocked again by the travel expenses of his cabinet.

NDP caucus leader Maureen MacDonald used her time to ask Blewett about ministers submitting vague claims.

“On numerous occasions, (…the minister of community services’) expenses are being bulk organized under categories like miscellaneous and other expenses, that (don’t) tell us a great deal about what that means.”

When asked if she had any idea what would be considered a miscellaneous expense, Blewett says she didn’t, but would follow up.

MacDonald also pointed to expense claims made by ministers at bars across the city. She asked about the level of oversight as to “whether or not lunch is provided at a martini bar for a business meeting.”

Blewett said that alcohol is not eligible to be claimed as a ministerial expense.

Liberal MLA Terry Farrell clarified through his questions to Blewett that all expenses categorized as “miscellaneous and other” would still need to be itemized and backed up by receipts in order to be reimbursed.

The standing committee on public accounts meeting in the Red Chamber of Province House
The standing committee on public accounts met in the Red Chamber of Province House Wednesday to question the head of the public service on the review and oversight of ministerial expenses.   Blake Prendergast

At the end of the meeting, Houston commented that the processes to reimburse ministerial claims rely on a lot of self-reporting.

Houston said that “what I was really interested in learning today was whether (… there are) any ministerial expenses that get thrown out, and we didn’t hear any information on that today.”

He said, “I still do have questions around whether taxpayers are getting value for money on ministerial expenses.”

Related Websites

Nova Scotia Summary of Ministerial Expenses