Nova Scotia·Opinion

Allow politicians private email accounts or ban them entirely, says Graham Steele

Political analyst Graham Steele says it's common practice for politicians and government officials to use private email accounts to avoid freedom of information rules. He did it, too.

Party politics fuels the quest to avoid freedom of information searches

Former finance minister Graham Steele says it's common practice for politicians and staff to use private email and smartphones to avoid freedom of information laws. (Tom Hanson/Canadian Press)

It's Right to Know Week. Did you know?

On Tuesday, Nova Scotia's information and privacy commissioner, Catherine Tully, warned public employees — including politicians and their political aides — not to use personal emails or send texts if it involves public business.

Actually, Tully was more polite than that. She wrote that the use of private emails and instant messaging tools "create a number of record keeping and compliance challenges."

No kidding.

I did it, too

As reported by CBC's Jean Laroche, Tully says there is no evidence to suggest anyone is using instant messaging or private email as a way to hide sensitive material from access to information requests.

If she has found no evidence, she can't be looking very hard.

Let me assist: The use of private email within government is widespread and routine. It is not an accident. And it is done precisely to evade FOI.

How do I know?

That's what I saw. That's what I did. And I was no exception.

Cone of silence

When I started in politics, everybody had to have a BlackBerry.

One of the main reasons to have a BlackBerry was the belief BlackBerry messages (known as PINs) were invisible to FOI. When someone — ministers, deputy ministers, political aides — got a new BlackBerry, they would share their PIN. That's where politically sensitive conversations were held. "PIN me," they'd say.

Within the last few years, the supposed cone of silence offered by BlackBerrys has worn off. BlackBerrys became less prevalent as better smartphones hit the market. Besides, a series of information rulings made clear that BlackBerry PINs were subject to FOI.

Evading FOI

As BlackBerrys waned, private emails waxed. Hotmail, Gmail, Yahoo: Low-tech and simple.

Of course we all had government email addresses, too. We switched back and forth, depending on who we were writing to and what we were writing about.

The only reason to do all this is to evade FOI. An email that never hits a government server can't be gathered in an FOI net.

Party politics fuels the behaviour

Occasionally someone would slip up. But the slips are few, considering how rampant the use of private email is. I understand why politicians do it. There's a side of politics that is necessary but ignoble.

How are we going to manage this? How do we get this done? How do we make this go away? What's the strategy? What's the message? How do we get the minister to show up sober? Should we push this past the next election? How do we keep the premier away from this? How do we give the premier credit for this? Why is Jack such a screw-up? Did you hear what Jill did last night? What do you want in exchange for your support?

All of this is reinforced by party politics. The team always has to look good. The boss always has to look great. For the good of the province, we have to get re-elected. Always stay on message.

This stuff is grease for the political machine. Without it, the machine seizes up.

Either allow it, or clamp down

Somewhere, in some distant la-la land, there are politicians who carefully document their whole thought process, commit it to writing, and are prepared to explain it to a forgiving opposition and an enlightened citizenry.

Catherine Tully warned public employees not to use personal emails or send texts if it involves public business.

But since we don't live in that la-la land, there are two ways we can go at this.

The first option is to carve out an exception in our freedom of information laws for political actors. We can start accepting that politics is (and always has been and always will be) a messy fight by irreconcilable interests over scarce resources, with politicians as mediators.

Better to let them be frank than to force them to act like Mafiosi.

The second option is to toughen the FOI laws. If we're going to do it, then let's go all the way. No more weak-kneed "guidelines."

Say it loudly and clearly: If you use private email for public business, you're breaking the law. If we catch you, we'll punish you, maybe get you booted from the legislature. And we will catch you.

Politicians will always find a way around the rules

If we go for the second option, the use of private email will stop cold. Maybe we'll find out more about the real reasons behind certain decisions, and that's a good thing.

But let's not be naive. Politicians will find another way: Some new device, some new technology, or a return to good old-fashioned verbal horse-trading in the backrooms and hallways of power.

Because there will always, always be things that politicians believe you have no right to know.

About the Author

Graham Steele

Political analyst

Graham Steele is a former MLA who was elected four times as a New Democrat for the constituency of Halifax Fairview. He also served as finance minister. Steele is now a political analyst for CBC News.

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