Nova Scotia

Premier 'subverting' spirit of access to info laws, says democracy group

A Halifax-based democracy group says Premier Stephen McNeil is subverting the spirit of Nova Scotia's access to information laws. The Centre for Law and Democracy says that flies in the face of a promise the Liberal leader made on the eve of the 2013 election.

Access laws are fundamental to democracy, says the Centre for Law and Democracy

The Centre for Law and Democracy says Premier Stephen McNeil has not made good on his election promises to improve the access to information law in Nova Scotia.

A Halifax-based international rights group accused Premier Stephen McNeil of subverting the spirit of Nova Scotia's access to information law, three years after he promised to strengthen it.

On Friday, Michael Karanicolas, senior legal officer for the Centre for Law and Democracy, publicly posted a letter the group received from Liberal leader Stephen McNeil on Oct. 4, 2013. With a vote just four days away, McNeil promised:

  • If elected Premier, I will expand the powers and mandate of the Review Officer, particularly through granting her order-making power.
  • If elected Premier, I will impose a binding timeline of 30 days, extendable once by a maximum of 30 days, for responding to access to information requests
  • If elected Premier, in our dealings with government lawyers, my government will only claim solicitor-client privilege in cases where confidentiality is necessary to protect an impending court case or negotiation.

"He made a commitment, in advance of the last election publicly, to the people of Nova Scotia, that he would improve the access to information law, that he would deliver a transparent and accountable government and thus far he's failed to make good on that promise," Karanicolas said.   

Three years, no progress

"It's been three years and we haven't seen any progress or any statements to the effect that reforms are in the cards," he said.

"l mean at this point it's increasingly looking like they're planning to leave this promise by the wayside, which is disappointing."

The premier was unavailable to answer questions Friday.

David Jackson, press secretary for the premier, said in a statement, the McNeil government "believes in the principle of transparency. We have made a significant increase in the amount of information shared proactively."

Michael Karanicolas is the senior legal officer for the Centre for Law and Democracy, a Halifax-based international rights group. (CBC)

The statement cited several ways, outside of the changing the act, the government says it improved transparency, such as making data sets available online, posting senior officials' expenses online and posting funding agreement information to the Department of Business accountability website.

"We have also made good progress in speeding up the processing of requests," Jackson said in the statement.

In 2015-2016, 81 per cent of applications received responses within 30 days, he said, compared to 2012, when 59 per cent of applications were answered in that time period.

Doubts premier interested in change

But Karanicolas doubted the premier was interested in pursuing change given McNeil's admission Thursday he used his phone to talk to staff instead of emailing them, in order to keep information secret.

"It's an unfortunate statement because it indicates a lack of seriousness about the importance of documenting decisions and the importance of having a strong access to information system that allows the people of Nova Scotia to get a clear and accurate picture of what the government is up to," said Karanicolas.

The rights group agreed with Nova Scotia's Information and Privacy Commissioner that the province needed a duty to document law. That way, Nova Scotians would know what information went into a decision, who made it and what other options might have been considered.

'It undermines transparency'

Karanicolas said it was important for reporters and others, such as environmental groups, groups that support labour or women's rights who use access laws, to have that information.

"They frequently use the access to information system as a mechanism for obtaining an accurate picture of what's going on in the province," he said.

"If that system is not working as it should, or if it's being subverted in particular ways or if politicians are deliberately not writing things down in order to avoid transparency obligations, I mean it undermines the system. It undermines transparency and ultimately it undermines democracy."

As for the premier's use of his phone to maintain privacy, Karanicolas is blunt.

"There's no question that subverts the spirit of the access to information law."

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About the Author

Jean Laroche

Reporter

Jean Laroche has been a CBC reporter for 32 years. He's been covering Nova Scotia politics since 1995 and has been at Province House longer than any sitting member.

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