New Brunswick's right to information law is weak and the fines for breaking the laws are so low, they are meaningless, according to a national proponent of government transparency.

Duff Conacher

Duff Conacher of Democracy Watch says New Brunswick needs stronger rules to protect government documents from being altered. (CBC)

"No one should trust the system," said Duff Conacher, founder of Democracy Watch and a visiting professor at the University of Ottawa's School of Political Studies.

"It's not designed to prevent [abuse] and it's barely designed to catch it," he said.

New Brunswick's Right to Information and Protection of Privacy Act is currently under review.

At the same time, there are allegations that documents obtained under the act were deliberately altered for the purpose of hiding a government benefit conferred on an editor at the Irving-owned newspaper chain.

Patricia Graham, the Brunswick News Inc. ombudsman, revealed this week that an internal ethics review found that Murray Guy, a former assistant managing editor at the Moncton Times & Transcript, went to the provincially-owned Larry's Gulch fishing lodge in 2013, as the guest of Daniel Allain, then-president and chief executive officer of NB Liquor.

Graham's revelations were made following a story posted by Canadaland, an independent media site, about the fishing trip controversy.

Moncton Times & Transcript

Two senior editors at the Moncton Times & Transcript are out after an internal ethics probe by Brunswick News Inc., according to the company’s ombudsman. (Google Streetview)

Graham said the investigation uncovered that Guy and his managing editor, Al Hogan, "sought to have Darell Fowlie, then-deputy minister of communications in former premier David Alward's government, alter the guest list before releasing it to other media."

Conacher also calls for steeper fines, suggesting a half-year's salary might act as a deterrent.

According to the Provincial Offences Procedure Act, the current maximum fine is $10,200.

Conacher says an oath to transparency and openness training should apply to the premier, cabinet and senior civil service.

He says bureaucrats should be tested with plausible scenarios in the same way the Canada School of Public Service includes sessions involving real case studies.

Larry's Gulch meetings questioned

Charles Murray, the province's ombudsman, says the Larry Gulch model of doing business at a private retreat may have been acceptable in the 1970s, but not now. 

Charles Murray

Charles Murray, the province's ombudsman, says the Larry Gulch model of doing business at a private retreat may have been acceptable in the 1970s, but not now. (CBC)

"That's the way you used to do things — you would meet privately and get the movers and shakers isolated," said Murray.

"But this is not a contract with Microsoft we're talking about, this is access to public agencies."

NDP Leader Dominic Cardy said on Tuesday that he wants the provincial government to sell Larry's Gulch.

One of the architects of the province's existing information law says it was partly designed to help public servants.

Donald Savoie. a University of Moncton professor, says the statute is there to give public servants a means to stand up for transparency.

But he says they are less likely to stand up to their political masters, compared to 30 years ago.

"It's a trend," he said. 

"They are less likely to speak against power."

The Department of Government Services is inviting stakeholders and individuals to participate in a review of the Right to Information and Protection of Privacy Act.

The original legislation, passed in 2009, called for a comprehensive review within four years.

The deadline for submissions is March 31 and the government is expected to table a report in the Legislative Assembly by the end of August.