Do politicians avoid leaving an email trail to dodge freedom of information requests?

The Current looks into the case of the disappearing government emails and the fight between privacy and the public's right to know.
After a request for an email paper trail on school closures turned up nothing, P.E.I. opposition MLA James Aylward is crying foul. (CBC)

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Prince Edward Island's LIberal government has been hit with protests since last fall from parents furious over the proposed closure of several public schools.

The government backed away from the school closures in April, quelling the mounting public furor, but a new controversy has quickly popped up in its place.

The proposed school closures have dominated politics in the province for months, but when opposition MLA James Aylward with the Progressive Conservatives filed a freedom of information request for all emails on the topic between the education minister and his deputy — he was told there were none.

"Do you honestly expect us to believe that not one single email existed between yourself and your deputy relating to your eight-month school saga," Aylward asked Education Minister Doug Currie in the provincial legislature.

Currie said he prefers to talk to his deputy. "I don't do a back-and-forth email conversation with my deputy. It's not how I work."

The exchange raised questions about government secrecy, and whether some politicians and civil servants are actively trying to circumvent public disclosure requirements.

Graham Steele says it happens all the time — and he would know. Steele is a former NDP finance minister in Nova Scotia who now teaches law in the Faculty of Management at Dalhousie University.

He admits to dodging freedom of information laws by avoiding use of government email back when he was in public office. He says he was never asked about it, so it never became an issue. But those kind of efforts were just part of the job.

"Politics is messy and I'm not sure that people fully understand just how messy the political decision-making process is," Steele tells The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti.
Former Nova Scotia cabinet minister Graham Steele says public servants routinely avoided leaving a paper trail. (CBC)

"What's going on behind the scenes, the personal issues, the tensions within the government — there's a lot of that going on in politics. There's this team ethic to protect the team at all costs, and especially protect the leader."

And a large part of that is keeping prying eyes away. Steele says there are several ways politicians circumvent freedom of information requests. As in P.E.I., they will try not to put anything down in writing, relying instead on verbal communication as Currie said he does.

Steele says they will also claim exceedingly broad exemptions under the freedom of information laws. And, he says, ministers also try to stay off of government servers as much as possible, using "back-channel communications" instead.

When Steele was Nova Scotia's finance minister, he says he used a private email account for sensitive issues rather than his work-appointed address.

"Now as technology is developing, I'm sure that politicians are using apps like Signal and other encrypted ways of just keeping things private," Steele tells Tremonti.

"The common theme of all these methods is to not make public the thought process behind public decision-making."

He can only speak to his own experiences, but he suspects that all politicians at all levels are are taking steps to keep their decision-making processes private.

Steele points to the recent Mike Duffy trial that revealed both Senator Duffy and Nigel Wright in the Prime Minister's Office were both using private email accounts to discuss sensitive political issues.

Steele suggests the problem isn't lax laws. It's lax enforcement.

"We either have to carve out a space and say, 'Look. Politicians are always going to have conversations that don't need to be public,' or we need to rigorously enforce it. We need to say, 'Look these are the rules.'"

Listen to the full segment at the top of this web post.

This segment was produced by The Current's Sam Colbert and Halifax network producer Mary-Catherine McIntosh.