Nova Scotia

No help coming for swamped access-to-information office

Nova Scotia's information and privacy watchdog has a large enough budget to do its job in a timely and efficient manner, says Premier Stephen McNeil, despite appeals taking years to be processed in some cases.

Nova Scotia premier says office has enough money, power to do its job

Premier Stephen McNeil says he believes the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner for Nova Scotia has an adequate budget and authority to do its job despite a backlog of appeals. (Craig Paisley/CBC)

Premier Stephen McNeil agrees it's unacceptable that Nova Scotia's information and privacy watchdog is taking years in some cases to process appeals, but said this week his government has no plans to bolster the office's budget or its authority.

Two recent decisions by the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner highlighted just how long it can take to appeal the government's refusal to hand over information.

A review report issued Aug. 9 dealt with a case that dated back to December 2014. An appeal decision released the next day ruled on an access-to-information request filed in January 2016.

Asked Thursday if his government gives the office enough money to serve the public in a timely and efficient manner, McNeil responded, "We believe we are."

Office has 'enough power'

​In those recent decisions, the commissioner ruled provincial departments withheld information that should be released and advised them to revisit the material. 

​In one case, the Department of Finance and Treasury Board flatly refused to hand over any of the requested records claiming the documents were not subject to Nova Scotia's access laws.

The commissioner ruled that wasn't the case and ordered the department to complete the request, although that order is not binding. Like all other rulings by the commissioner, it is only a recommendation.

The office has asked for the power to make rulings binding but successive governments have ignored that request. 

McNeil said he doesn't see the need for a change.

"No, I believe there's enough power there today," he told reporters following a cabinet meeting in Halifax.

"And we'll continue to move forward and make sure that the information that goes out, gets out in a timely manner."

PC MLA calls for bigger budget

Opposition MLA Barbara Adams disagreed.

PC MLA Barbara Adams says Nova Scotia's information and privacy commissioner should have greater authority. (CBC)

"If [McNeil] really was true to his word about being more open and transparent, he would make the commissioner of FOIPOP [Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy] a separate entity from the government so that she would have the authority to make sure that those FOIPOP decisions of hers were enforced," Adams said Friday. 

"Right now she can't do that."

Adams,  the PC member for Cole Harbour-Eastern Passage, said "there's no question" the office's budget should be boosted to give it the resources to clear up the current backlog of cases.

Both Adams and McNeil agree appeals should be processed as quickly as possible, though the premier suggested opposition politicians might be part of the problem.

"It's just that people are using [access laws] now as a vehicle to get their information ... different political parties use it as a way to attack governments," he said. "That all takes time to put it out." 

More than 2,000 requests in 2017-18

According to the province's own tracking of access requests, political parties historically file fewer requests for information than businesses or private individuals.

According to the latest available figures, businesses made 933 applications in 2017-18, the public filed 588 requests and political parties were responsible for 214. Reporters filed 249 of them.

McNeil also suggested the overall volume of requests has grown since the Liberals took power.

"I would argue there's more coming in under us than any other government," he said.

Although it is true that during McNeil's time in office, requests for government documents have increased from to 2,280 in 2017-18 from 1,812 in 2013-14, the number of requests has remained roughly the same over the last three years.

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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