Court action sends 'very negative message,' says N.S. premier as PCs defend suit

Premier Stephen McNeil is holding firm that documents related to the deal between his government and Bay Ferries need to be kept secret, despite a court action filed Monday by Nova Scotia's official Opposition.

Tory caucus suing Nova Scotia government for access to Bay Ferries deal details

Nova Scotia's Transportation Department has argued releasing information related to the cost of the Yarmouth ferry service could be commercially harmful to Bay Ferries. (Bay Ferries Ltd.)

Premier Stephen McNeil is holding firm that documents related to the deal between his government and Bay Ferries need to be kept secret, despite a court action filed Monday by Nova Scotia's Official Opposition.

"It's taxpayers suing taxpayers," McNeil said Monday about the decision by the Progressive Conservative caucus to file the Supreme Court motion

Although a news release by the Liberal caucus called the court action "a political stunt," the premier would not.

"There is an avenue they've chosen to take, but I believe it's sending a very negative message to the private sector globally that proprietary information will be taken by the Conservative government and disseminated openly to all to see," he said.

Premier Stephen McNeil (third from right, back row) takes part in celebrations Monday marking the 200th anniversary of Province House. (CBC/Jean Laroche)

Last month, the provincial Transportation Department refused to comply with a formal recommendation by Nova Scotia's privacy commissioner to reveal how much taxpayers are paying Bay Ferries to run its service to Maine.

But McNeil said being forced to divulge that information would hurt Bay Ferries by allowing competing companies to know what fee it was charging Nova Scotia taxpayers.

"Disclosing that to competitors puts them at a disadvantage — not only [with] this ferry, but in other public contracts that they apply for," he said.

'Has to be done'

Tory Leader Tim Houston argued taxpayers have a right to know how the Liberals are spending their tax money.

"It's something that has to be done," Houston said Monday after making a public show of hand-delivering the court papers to the Law Courts in Halifax.

"Taxpayers of Nova Scotia shouldn't have to take the government to court to find out how the government is spending their money."

Tim Houston hand-delivered court papers Monday to the Law Courts in Halifax. (CBC/ Jean Laroche)

Houston said his caucus decided to take a stand in light of recent moves by Liberal MLAs to limit topics coming before legislature committees and to cut the number of meetings of what was once the most powerful committee at Province House, the public accounts committee.

"Just seeing the erosion to democracy that's been happening over the last couple of years, somebody has to take a stand now and I think the Liberal government was betting that nobody would," said Houston.

"But somebody has to do and that's us."

In 2016, the Progressive Conservatives and reporters from AllNovaScotia.com and Global filed freedom-of-information requests in relation to the province's 10-year contract with Bay Ferries.

When their requests were denied, the parties appealed to Privacy Commissioner Catherine Tully's office for a review. Last December, Tully released a report admonishing the Transportation Department for withholding the information.

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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