A Court of Queen's Bench judge will rule next month on whether to force the Alward government to make public details of contracts with consultants commissioned to study shale gas royalties in the province.
Green Party Leader David Coon had requested copies of the contracts under the Right to Information Act on Feb. 13, 2013, but Finance Minister Blaine Higgs refused to release them, or even the names of the consultants.
Coon subsequently filed a complaint with the Access to Information Commissioner Anne Bertrand, who investigated the matter for 10 months and recommended Higgs release the four contracts, with a minor redaction to one contract regarding a negotiating strategy.
But Bertrand has no power to order the information be released and in a letter to Coon, dated Feb. 24, Higgs said he did not accept the commissioner's recommendation, so Coon appealed to the court for a final decision.
"Like me, New Brunswickers are sick and tired of our governments carrying out the business of the people in secret, hiding their work and suppressing public information," Coon said in a statement.
"The people have a right to know who our government is hiring, for what purpose, and at what cost. I am asking the judge to enforce that right," he said.
But in court on Thursday, government lawyer Michael Hynes argued the consultants are opposed to any information being released and that under the law, they have that right.
No company officials made representations to the court on Thursday. Hynes declined to speak to reporters outside the courtroom.
Justice Judy Clendening has reserved decision until early June.
The Access to Information Commissioner contends the third-parties' opposition is not a good reason to keep the information secret.
"There's no way you can keep from the public contracts of consultants," Bertrand told CBC's Information Morning Fredericton.
"Let the people know how you spend your money, how you spend the public purse. And contracts of that sort — the contracts for people who do business with government, they must be disclosed — I mean, that's the rule."
Coon also maintains the information should be made public.
"The whole question of royalty regimes, how much we should charge, how we should charge for natural gas, did not come before the Legislature. It was not debated on the floor of the Legislative Assembly," he said.
Bill Ayer, a retired water quality specialist with the provincial Department of Environment, who attended the court hearing, agrees.
"I believe we should have the ability, people outside, to know what's going on with those contracts," he said.