Nova Scotia

Houston says he'll make good on promise to give privacy commissioner more power

Premier-designate Tim Houston is poised to do something none of his predecessors were willing to do: give Nova Scotia’s privacy commissioner order-making power.

Nova Scotia only province where privacy commissioner is not an independent officer

Premier-designate Tim Houston says overhauling Nova Scotia's freedom of information legislation will be part of his incoming government's fall agenda. (Jeorge Sadi/CBC)

Premier-designate Tim Houston is poised to do something none of his predecessors were willing to do: give Nova Scotia's privacy commissioner order-making power.

Houston, like other politicians before him, promised ahead of the provincial election that he would make the change should he and the Progressive Conservatives form power.

As the Tories prepare to be sworn in next week, Houston told CBC News on Tuesday that he'll be keeping his promise.

"I know that there's lots of Nova Scotians that have put in legitimate information requests that have got a lot of pushback, a lot of hurdles," he said.

"We're going to work with the privacy commissioner to make sure that the proper authority is there so that Nova Scotians have access to the information that they rightly should have access to."

'A broken system'

Former premier Stephen McNeil was the last politician to promise to make the change, going as far as signing a letter regarding the pledge.

But once McNeil came to power, he called the promise a mistake and his government routinely clashed with the privacy commissioner's office.

Premier Iain Rankin later initiated a review of the province's freedom of information system, something Houston plans to see through.

Nova Scotia is the only province where the privacy commissioner is not an independent officer of the legislature. The role here also does not have order-making power.

That means that while the office regularly makes recommendations, the provincial government and other public bodies aren't required to follow them.

Tricia Ralph is Nova Scotia's information and privacy comissioner. (CBC)

Tricia Ralph, Nova Scotia's information and privacy commissioner, said last year just 37.5 per cent of her office's recommendations were followed.

"To me, that shows a broken system," she said in an interview.

Houston has particular knowledge of how challenging the system can be for people when government doesn't want to hand over information.

The Tories took the province to court to enforce a recommendation from the privacy commissioner that the management fee paid to Bay Ferries to operate the Yarmouth ferry be released. Houston said most citizens wouldn't be able to go through a multi-year court process the way his party did to get the government to release information.

"We happen to have the resources to do that because my chief of staff is also a lawyer. Most Nova Scotians can't do that, so that's unfair," he said.

Ralph has not talked yet with Houston, but welcomed the news and said she hopes to also be consulted during a review of the legislation, which hasn't had a substantive update since 1993.

Multi-year backlog

She's also feeling optimistic about what three new term positions her office is about to receive will do to help address an appeals backlog that has about 420 files.

Ralph's office released its annual report on Tuesday, drawing attention to the backlog, the ongoing increase in requests and the need for more resources and overhauling the act.

It can take upwards of four years for the office to get to a file and Ralph is hoping a near doubling of her investigations staff will help cut into that.

"Once that's in place, we should be able to really be reducing our backlog in a very significant way," said Ralph.