Premier Stephen McNeil has swept aside a call to overhaul Nova Scotia's access to information law, telling reporters he sometimes phones staff instead of sending emails, in order to keep information from the public.

This comes after the province's information and privacy commissioner, Catherine Tully, said Tuesday the law needs to be updated and modernized.

That law, the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act, allows anyone to request records owned by government or a public institution, with specific exceptions. The goal is to "ensure that public bodies are fully accountable to the public."

The commissioner's office released a new guideline this week, warning public officials against using private email accounts or sending texts on the job.

Catherine Tully

Nova Scotia's information and privacy commissioner, Catherine Tully, wants a ban on use of personal cellphones and tablets for government business, unless those tools can be set up to retain and store records automatically. (CBC)

Confidential calls

McNeil said, although he has a private email account, he never has used it for government business. Instead he phones staff to have confidential conversations.

"I pick up the phone and call," the premier told reporters Thursday. 

"I need to be able to communicate to my staff, and there are certain things I want to be able to tell them that I don't believe should be out in the public domain."

The premier once boasted he would make Nova Scotia the most open and transparent province in the country. He also promised to beef up freedom of information legislation.

'We tell you everything' 

McNeil told reporters his government now is open and accountable.

"We tell you everything," he said.

He clarified that by "everything," he meant information related to action taken, rather than all options considered. 

"The ones that are public policy, you know all the details around it."

'The way I choose to operate'

For McNeil, that was an important distinction to make.

"Sometimes we look at public policy, for example, that may never become public policy, but we need to review it, and if [it] becomes [available under the access law], it becomes public — and I'm defending something that as a government we haven't even entertained in doing," McNeil said.

"This is a large organization that has to have the ability to do business. That's the way I choose to operate."

No duty to document

Tully also said she would like to see the province adopt a provision that other provinces are considering called a "duty to document." That means a government would commit to fully documenting the steps along the way to a decision.

McNeil rejected her suggestion that that's not happening in Nova Scotia.

"I don't agree with the commissioner," he said.

"Every public policy is documented. You receive it. We make it public, but we have to have the ability to talk about policy that may never come to light.

"And we need to be able to debate that amongst ourselves and have a conversation about that without me having to debate it in public."