Nova Scotia

Nova Scotia premier stands by conflict-of-interest reporting system

Premier Stephen McNeil says he's satisfied with the way the province's conflict of interest commissioner works, with no record-keeping or follow-up on files.

Current system that includes no public reporting or record-keeping works, says Stephen McNeil

Premier Stephen McNeil says when concerns of conflict of interest arise, it doesn't take long for the public to become aware. (CBC)

Premier Stephen McNeil says he trusts the conflict of interest commissioner's judgement about how the office operates.

"If the conflict of interest commissioner believes the process that he's following today is appropriate, we're moving forward with it."

On Tuesday, retired justice Merlin Nunn told the legislature's standing committee on human resources he isn't sure how many people he counsels because records aren't kept.

Nunn also questioned the value of making his work public through an annual report or some other mechanism, and said he doesn't follow up on matters after he's dealt with them because he assumes people follow his guidance.

Dealing with delicate and personal information

Speaking at Province House on Wednesday, McNeil said he has faith in Nunn's 19-year track record.

"I have all the confidence in Merlin Nunn for the work that he's been doing over an extended period of time for successive governments. He's dealing with very delicate and personal information and ... as a member of the judiciary would know the law and whether there [is] a conflict, and he would make that decision on what he needed to keep and not keep."

After the meeting on Tuesday, MLAs from all three parties said the lack of record-keeping is something that might need to be revisited in the future, when the time comes to find Nunn's successor. At the minimum, they suggested, a report that logs the number of calls the commissioner receives and from what departments would be in the interest of transparency.

Tory bill would require annual reports

The Progressive Conservatives have a bill before the House that would make the post an officer of the legislature, thus requiring an annual report. And while commissioners in other province's post decisions online, Nunn does not. His response to a complaint only becomes public if one of the parties involved chooses to make it public.

McNeil said that system seems to be working.

"If there's an issue, the public knows about it. It gets heavily reported. We've seen that over the years."

Members deserve some privacy

It's common for people calling Nunn to simply be looking for information or clarification, and the premier said he sees no reason for private matters such as those to become public.

"Often times people come into this job not fully appreciating and understanding where those conflicts may be, and I think members need to have the ability to be able to go to the conflict of interest commissioner in a private matter to be able to get an understanding of that without it being put in the public domain, unless it affects the public and often times it doesn't."

Follow ups could be added to job description

Tory and NDP representatives on Tuesday suggested Nunn's office could file a report that doesn't include personal information unless it was a situation where wrongdoing was found. New Democrat Marian Mancini wondered if staffing for Nunn's office — he's essentially a one-man show — needs to be reviewed. She said some of the practices seem archaic.

The commissioner has three main duties: advising MLAs and members of the public service on matters of potential conflict, signing off on MLAs' annual disclosure statements and responding to complaints when someone believes there is a conflict.

McNeil said the commissioner already has the ability to follow up on decisions, but said it's something that could be added to the job description in a more formal way.

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