Auditor shrugs off N.S. premier's criticisms: 'It's business as normal for us'

Nova Scotia Auditor General Michael Pickup appears before the public accounts committee at the legislature in Halifax on Wednesday, Nov. 29, 2017. Recently Pickup criticized the government's communications skills in his latest report, drawing the ire of Premier Stephen McNeil. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andrew Vaughan

HALIFAX - Nova Scotia's auditor general attached a firm figure Wednesday to how worried he is by the premier's suggestions he strayed from his mandate in a report identifying gaps in the province's health system.

Michael Pickup said it was "zero."

Liberal Premier Stephen McNeil had criticized Pickup last week after the watchdog was critical of the province's communications on health policy. The premier said the auditor general's job is to ensure the government is spending taxpayers' dollars appropriately.

But Pickup told the public accounts committee Wednesday that he's just pleased all 21 of his report's recommendations are being accepted by the Health Department and the Nova Scotia Health Authority.

"In terms of the work we're doing, I have zero concern or worry we're outside of mandate," he told David Wilson, an NDP opposition member who directly asked him about McNeil's comments.

"Clearly we are inside mandate and if it gives me an opportunity ... to engage in discussion, and people are interested in an audit, I'm happy."

The auditor general's Nov. 22 report also pointed out shortcomings in mental health and homecare.

Pickup said public agencies have done a poor job communicating the government's plan to address problems in primary care, including doctor shortages. He recommended the province bring in a plan that would inform people on doctor recruitment goals, and when people should expect services to be available.

The audit also pointed out that an online registry of people in need of primary care needed to prioritize the thousands of people on the list based on their health care needs.

McNeil bristled at the implications, saying his government had done an "outstanding job'' of communicating with the public about health care challenges. He told reporters public policy was the job of elected members of the legislature.

Pickup told the committee Wednesday that performance audits are a normal part of his office's work and public agencies have plenty of time to reply and verify the facts.

He said his office sends news releases to the departments three to four days before the release of reports, with the goal of ensuring accuracy.

For the most part, the Liberal members of the public accounts committee seemed to take a much gentler approach with the auditor than their party leader.

However, Liberal member Hugh MacKay suggested the public may have misunderstood that Pickup's study of communications methods didn't look at the frequency of news releases and other communications strategies.

"We believe that if concentration is done strictly on the framework of the audit it could be misleading to the public who may not understand the purpose of the audit or the mechanisms of the audit," he said, while questioning the auditor.

Following the hearing Pickup was asked by reporters whether his office's work was in any way misleading.

"Absolutely not," Pickup said. "I think the indication of that is the acceptance of those findings and the recommendations by government."

Other than the premier's comments, Pickup said there had been no government pushback on any of his office's performance audits.

"The independence is there, I'm not concerned. It's business as normal for us."

However, Progressive Conservative Tim Houston said a leader of a political party shouldn't be calling the credibility of the auditor general into question when there is no evidence they've strayed from their mandate.

"Any attempt to undermine the credibility of the auditor general of the province is wrong," said Houston.

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