Bobbleheaded Zach joins the public accounts follies

Education Minister Zach Churchill was just filling in on the public accounts committee last week, filling in Liberal interest spin in the usual please-the-premier way. And so it went. Funny, but…

The column originally appeared in the Halifax Examiner March 4, 2019.

I’m almost certain Nova Scotia Education Minister Zach Churchill is not really a Bobblehead. He was just playing one in the legislature’s public accounts committee last week.

Last week, Churchill joined the Fangless Five and the Insensate Seven as he moved his head up and down in time with his premier on the issue of protecting the privacy of public records.

Or what he thought was in time with his premier.

We’ll come back to that.

Last week’s public accounts committee was supposed to discuss Privacy Commissioner Catherine Tully’s report on last spring’s MASSIVE FAIL at the province’s information access and privacy website. You remember that fail, the one when 7,000 records — some containing highly personal information — were “inappropriately” if easily downloaded by a kid with a computer. That breach was only accidentally discovered a month later. That’s when the government, in its infinite unwisdom, went after that kid with the computer and tried to pin a crime on him… Yes, you remember. That one.

Last week, Tully used her committee appearance to make another — once more into the breach/yet again/still/stillborn — plea to the government to update, rewrite and generally modernize its creaking 1993 Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act.

That act, as she gently noted, was passed when there were just 130 sites on something strange called the World Wide Web and Google was five years from becoming reality, and five years and one week from becoming a thing: Googled, Googling, etc.

“We have to have a change,” Tully told the committee members. “We cannot stay with this law.”

Tully, who has been in the privacy business for 20 years, knows whereof she speaks.

Zach Churchill, who has been in the premier-polishing business since he was first elected in 2010, knows whereof he speaks too. And, even though he was only a substitute hitter for dependably Fangless Brendan Maguire at last week’s hearing, Churchill was quick to bobble his head and babble appropriately.

While acknowledging he hadn’t studied the privacy act or bothered to pay attention to any of Tully’s earlier reasoned pleas for better legislation, Churchill’s cranium bobbled in time with what he assumed his boss would want. “I’m generally suspicious of anybody asking for more power,” Churchill told reporters, ignoring the reality he and his mates will be asking us for more power again come the next election. Channeling his inner premier, Churchill continued: “But as the process is, recommendations are made [and] the elected government, who is accountable to the people, make decisions.”

Rough translation: “No.”

Before we leave that public accounts unaccountability session, credit where credit is sort-of due. Liberal MLA Suzanne Lohnes-Croft — she of both the Fangless Five members of the public accounts committee and also the Insensate Seven Liberals on the new health committee — ventured that Tully “did make a compelling argument” to change the law. “I think we can take a look at it and see if we agree that it should be done.”

That said, let’s not give Lohnes-Croft too much credit. The week before — in her Fangless Five public-accounts capacity — she helped vote down an opposition request for the committee to hear from Transportation Minister “Larry, Curly and Moe” Hines and his deputy concerning the latest Yarmouth-Portland-Bar-Harbor ferry folderol.

Instead, the Liberal members of the public accounts committee shuffled the whole very public-account-ish ferry issue off to the legislature’s natural resources and economic development committee, of which Lohnes-Croft is, of course, the chair. She quickly made clear the committee would not invite Hines — who needs all the help he can get to stay out of camera range — to speak, only his deputy.

So, when might this committee meet to discuss the ferry? “I’m thinking April, maybe,” she mused. “If we’re well behaved in the House, we might get out early.”

And so it went.

The premier, you ask? Well, a day later and a decade late, the premier appeared to be having third thoughts. You may remember that before he got crowned premier the first time, then-opposition leader Stephen McNeil actually wrote a letter promising to give the privacy commissioner the power she needs to make orders instead of just giving her the privilege to offer easily ignored advice.

And then McNeil became premier. And bye-bye to all of that,

As recently as January, the premier was still insisting the province’s privacy and access to information law was “working just fine.” Nothing to change here, folks. Hence, all the babbling Bobbleheads bobbling away in unison.

But then last week, after Tully’s appearance, the premier appeared to have changed his mind — again. “I think she rightfully highlighted the changes needed since the last time this bill was updated,” opined the premier who made it sound as if he’s been playing the same tune all along. “We thought we might have [revised legislation] for the spring, it looks like we won’t. It looks like it will be introduced in the fall.”

Not that he really meant it.

What about that teeth-giving order-making powers Tully asked for, reporters asked? Will those be included in the planned changes to the legislation? Garbled the premier in response: “We believe the process how it’s working now where she’s making recommendations to government and we’re accepting [sic] those recommendations is working.”

As you were Fangless Five, Insensate Seven and Bobbling Bobbleheads.

All of this may seem divertingly amusing except for one thing.

During questioning last week at public accounts from NDP MLA Susan Leblanc, Tully explained that the privacy office had not been consulted about the implementation of the province’s new “one patient, one record” electronic health program, which is “perhaps the single largest personal records project undertaken by the province.”

“There should be a mandatory requirement to consult with us not on every project,” Tully told the committee, “but on projects that involve very sensitive personal information, or integrated programs or activities where there are multiple databases being put together, things that would have a profound effect on the privacy of Nova Scotians…”

As in one patient, one record.

The project is already plagued with problems. Auditor General Michael Pickup has said that if the health department doesn’t fix those problems, it could result in increased wait times — increased?! — higher costs and, yes, leaks of confidential records containing the most personal, sensitive information.

Not quite so amusing.

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