12/21/2011 12:25 EST | Updated 02/20/2012 05:12 EST

Lack of legislation scrutiny undercuts democracy in N.L.: critics

ST. JOHN'S, N.L. - Former premier Danny Williams expressed a rare regret last year over Newfoundland and Labrador's expropriation of a paper mill and its hefty cleanup costs.

It was the one thing he said he would have done differently as his government rushed to expropriate AbitibiBowater timber and water rights after the company said it would close its plant in Grand Falls-Windsor.

Legislation allowing the assets seizure — a move that wound up costing Ottawa $130 million to settle claims of trade violations — also saddled the province with the mill's environmental tab.

The pricey blunder was mostly blamed on how the province's Conservative government, with the backing of opposition parties and without sober second thought, rammed through legislation that allowed the asset grab.

It's an extreme example of an almost complete lack of committee scrutiny over legislation in the province.

Since Premier Kathy Dunderdale's election in October, opposition critics have renewed calls for the sort of all-party review process that is taken for granted in Ottawa and other provinces.

Six Liberals and five New Democrats hold 11 seats in the lopsided legislature, compared with 37 Progressive Conservatives. Before October's election, there were just four Liberals and one New Democrat.

Provincial standing orders allow for committees that can discuss policy and legislation and collect input from the public or expert witnesses, NDP Leader Lorraine Michael said in an interview.

"What's on paper is not how we operate.

"If our natural resources standing committee ... were operating like a House of Commons committee or like the committees in Nova Scotia, we'd have a fully open discussion on Muskrat Falls."

Opposition critics have assailed the proposed $6.2 billion hydroelectric project in Labrador. They say the megaproject is prone to cost overruns and will jack up power bills in the province.

The government says Muskrat Falls is the lowest-cost option to meet energy needs over time.

Michael said legislation is typically reviewed as the entire 48-member house of assembly reverts to a committee of the whole after bills receive first and second reading.

"Sometimes on the same day you do the second reading and then committee of the whole, and you're ready to just close off the bill, all in one day. It's just not a full discussion."

But Dunderdale has brushed off any notion of increased committee activity.

Legislation "undergoes a great deal of scrutiny" by department officials before it ever gets to the legislature, she told reporters last week.

"There's ample opportunity in the house for debate. You know, I'm satisfied with the system in terms of the way it's currently working."

Christopher Dunn, a political scientist at Memorial University in St. John's, said a more active public accounts committee might have caught the constituency spending scandal that saw four politicians of all party stripes serve jail time.

"Just because we're small doesn't mean we can't have active legislatures," he said in an interview. "It's part of what democracy should be all about.

"An argument for decreased committee activity is an argument for allowing vast areas of government policy to go unexamined," he added.

"What the premier's arguing for is executive dominance. Whereas for the system to be healthy you have to have an active legislature."

Jonathan Malloy, a political scientist at Carleton University in Ottawa, has studied committee systems across Canada. It isn't as easy for smaller provinces with fewer elected members to copy models used in Ottawa and larger legislatures, he said.

"A committee system doesn't always make the best sense in terms of resources and priorities."

Still, he said there has to be some means of review.

"Certainly on any large government policy, the job of any legislative assembly is to scrutinize government and hold it to account. Committees are one way of doing it."

Michael said Muskrat Falls and other major government projects should get that kind of airing.

"I think those things definitely deserve to have a full, open and democratic discussion, which we don't get because of the way we do it in our house of assembly."