Is Nova Scotia Canada’s most secretive jurisdiction? Or does it just act that way? Consider a few especially egregious, not-at-all-transparent episodes from just the last week.
Is Nova Scotia Canada’s most secretive jurisdiction? Or does it just act that way? Consider a few especially egregious, not-at-all-transparent episodes from just the last week. Let’s start with the latest on plans to build a new 126,000-sq. ft. community outpatient healthcare facility in Bayers Lake Business Park. Though the facility is ostensibly going to provide a myriad of important health services — blood collection, diagnostic imaging, medical and surgical consulting, pre- and post-op care, even after-hours non-emergency physician care — the reality is that it will be in a most inaccessible location so, if you don’t have a car, you probably won’t be able to get there from wherever you are on the peninsula.
Tough on you.
“This is the right site,” declared Premier Stephen McNeil when he stuck a “Coming-Soon” sign on the property back in the spring of 2017 and pronounced his a job well done.
His right site, it turns out, also happened to be owned by a Liberal party supporter, who sold it to the government for $7.5-million with no open tender.
But I — sort of — digress. No open tender?
Last week — more than a year after construction was supposed to begin (sorry, I digress again) — the government announced it had finally officially asked three shortlisted bidders to submit proposals to build the new health centre.
While the companies behind two of the successful bidders — Ellis Don Corp. and Bird Construction — were well known in the industry, the third name, Community Health Partners, was a mystery.
So, legitimately asked Devin Stevens, a reporter with the subscription-based business news site allnovascotia.com, who’s behind Community Health?
Won’t say, said the province.
But wait. There’s more. And less.
What’s in the government request for proposals, Stevens wanted to know?
Can’t say, said the spokesperson for the transportation and infrastructure renewal department. The tender documents contain too much top-secret information for the people paying the bills to be allowed to know what’s in them.
Which is about par for this government’s course when it comes to transparency.
The community health centre is part of the $2-billion QEII Health Centre re-development project, which the government has said will be developed as a private-public partnership in order to save taxpayers money — even though virtually every analysis of such private-public partnerships show they end up costing significantly more than if the government had done the job itself.
The government, however, says it did commission a report, which it claims supports its argument in favour of the P3 approach.
But — you guessed it — it won’t release that report until it’s too late to matter.
The government’s approach to transparency in the case of the new health centre is of a zip-your-lip piece with its response to… well, everything.
Also last week, the province applied to the Supreme Court of Canada for a temporary reprieve from a Nova Scotia Court of Appeal ruling that would have made public the McNeil government’s marching orders to its lawyer in the 2016 Alton Gas case.
That lawyer, Alex Cameron, a 26-year veteran Justice department lawyer, had argued in court the government had no need to consult the Sipekne’katick First Nation about the gas project because they were a “conquered people.”
Unsurprisingly, Indigenous groups were incensed.
Premier McNeil and Justice Minister Diana Whelan did their best who-us? They immediately tossed Cameron under the bus, backed up and ran over him. Again. And again. It was all his fault, they said.
But in 2017, two days after Cameron retired — he says he was constructively dismissed — he sued the province, McNeil and Whalen for defamation, claiming he had been simply following their instructions when he made the conquered-people argument.
To prove it, he wants to introduce as evidence the government’s actual instructions to him.
Uh… no, stammered the government. We have principles. Solicitor-client, privilege, don’t you know. And our instructions to Cameron are covered by that same attorney-client privilege. So, no, he can’t use our official instructions to him to prove we’re not telling the truth.
So far, three judges have already rained on the government’s privilege parade. The government, they all said, effectively waived its privilege when McNeil and Whalen opened their mouths.
Earlier this month, Appeal Court Justice Duncan Beveridge weighed in, savaging the government’s position, calling its arguments “spurious” and “hollow.” He ordered its instructions to Cameron be publicly released last Thursday.
Before that could happen, however, the McNeil government’s lawyers — with ever-increasing desperation and ever-mounting costs to taxpayers — appealed all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada for one last-minute temporary stay of publication while they tried to make their non-case one more time.
To the surprise of many, they got what they asked for. At least temporarily.
While we still don’t know what’s in the government’s actual instructions to Cameron, consider this a hint. Justice Beveridge has almost certainly read them. Here is what he said in his 19-page ruling about the potential impact of releasing the document: “The only harm that I see to the applicants [McNeil, Whalen, et al] is embarrassment from Mr. Cameron putting in the public domain his allegations and evidence that challenge the notion that he advanced an argument on behalf of the Province without or contrary to instructions.”
Ouch. And ouch again.
But the Nova Scotia government — like that old Timex watch — takes a licking and keeps on ticking. And not only in the Alton gas case.
The ferry fiasco? Sorry to remind you about that still ongoing, never-ending mess, but McNeil is keeping even more government lawyers occupied these days trying to make the self-serving legal case that you shouldn’t be allowed to see the secret management contract the government has struck with Bay Ferries to manage the heavily subsidized, not-operating tourist ferry between Yarmouth and Somewhere, USA.
Canada’s most secretive jurisdiction? We’re definitely in contention for the gold.
This column initially appeared in the Halifax Examiner July 15, 2019.