Stephen McNeil: Read his lips. Just don’t believe a word he says

Nova Scotia Information and Privacy Commissioner Catherine Tully.

Here in Stephen McNeil’s Nova Scotia, we should mark Right to Know Week by lowering the flag to half-mast and lighting a mourning candle in memory of the quaint notion citizens have some fundamental right to know what its government is doing.

This column originally appeared in the Halifax Examiner September 24, 2018.

Happy “Right to Know Week!” It starts today (September 24, 2018) in case you hadn’t noticed. Why would you?

And, oh yes, in case you’re counting, this Friday, Sept. 28, will mark the 16th annual “International Right to Know Day,” a day set aside in 40 countries around the world, including Canada, “to raise global awareness of individuals’ right to access government information and to promote access to information as a fundamental right.”

Here in Stephen McNeil’s Nova Scotia — where it is always Their Right Not to Tell Us day/week/month/year/mandate/ever — we should mark the occasion by lowering the flag to half-mast and lighting a mourning candle in memory of the quaint notion citizens have some fundamental right to know what its government is doing.

Consider just the last week in Nova Scotia in the lead-up to Right to Know Week.

On Tuesday, Stephen McNeil jogged back his 2013 election campaign promise to “expand the powers and mandate of the [information and privacy commissioner], particularly through granting her order-making power.”

At the time, McNeil had been responding to a September 2013 report from the Centre for Law and Democracy, which had reported the then-Nova Scotia government — thanks to “broad exceptions, loose time limits and an insufficiently empowered oversight body” — scored a “mediocre’ seventh among Canada’s federal and 13 provincial and territorial governments when it came to citizens’ right to information. “Were Nova Scotia a country,” the report added pointedly, “it would tie for 46th place out of the 93 countries that have been rated, on par with Honduras and Belize.”

Stephen McNeil

Our eager-to-become-premier opposition leader Stephen McNeil stepped up to the microphone to promise a Liberal government would give the information and privacy commissioner all the power she needs to fulfill her mandate.

That was then. This was last Tuesday.

“I think what most Nova Scotians are grateful for,” he told reporters who asked why he hadn’t kept that promise even after five years in power, is that “I’m not stubborn in my ways, and [when] I realize I made a mistake, I acknowledge it.”

Improving access to information a mistake?

Stephen McNeil not stubborn in his ways…?

Don’t even bother to try to parse those non-sense-makers.

Let’s try this instead. “I ran on a campaign,” he offered defensively. “Was it in my platform? I didn’t run on that.”

Which effectively appears to mean, ‘Don’t believe anything I say if you don’t have it in writing and sealed in blood.’

Too bad he didn’t tell Nova Scotia’s film and television industry workers not to pay attention when, on October 1, 2013, in the middle of that same provincial election, a vote-grubbing Stephen McNeil sought out a promise-maker photo-op at Longtail Studios in Halifax to solemnly swear “a new Liberal government will also expand the film tax and digital media credit for… another five years.”

If McNeil had told them the truth then, perhaps those in the industry would have understood what he really meant was that it was time to pack their bags and seek careers and lives elsewhere.

But I digress…

Two days after his a-promise-is-not-a-promise-if-I-decide-it’s-not scrum, McNeil once again weighed in on his government’s right not to tell.

This time it had to do with a scathing 18-page report from Information and Privacy Commissioner Catherine Tully. She concluded the government had violated its own freedom of information act when it rejected 2017 access-to-information requests from then-Global News reporter Marieke Walsh, and that its response to her was “not open, accurate or complete.”

Leo Glavine

Walsh, who had already reported on Health Minister Leo Glavine’s use of a private email account to conduct ministerial business, wanted to find more about how much government business had been done through Glavine’s private emails.

The government rejected the requests because it claimed the act only applied to records “in the custody or under the control of a public body. This does not include personal email accounts.”

Tully begged to differ. In fact, in a 2016 report, she’d already noted: “If the record is used to make a decision, if it’s relied upon by the public body, it doesn’t matter what tool you’ve used to record that, it’s in the control of the public body. It has to be produced in response to an access request.”

In her investigation into the health department’s rejection of Walsh’s request, Tully reported she’d been prevented from even questioning Glavine’s executive assistant about the matter by a deputy minister from the premier’s office.

McNeil claimed that wasn’t true but then added it didn’t matter because Tully has no power to force witnesses to speak to her anyway — a reality that is, of course, one part of the problem the premier has refused to remedy.

“What more was she looking for?” the premier asked disingenuously. “What does she want? You don’t call witnesses when someone actually says, ‘You know what, you’re right, I was wrong.’”

As my colleague Tim Bousquet astutely noted in Friday’s Morning File: “That’s such an absurd statement I don’t even know where to begin with it. But how ’bout this?: Anyone who has ever been in a courtroom knows that every person who ever pleads guilty to a crime must sign and swear to an agreed statement of facts that is compiled by investigators who, yes, interview witnesses.”

Not that absurdity is a barrier when it comes to government’s right not to tell.

McNeil himself has bragged he prefers telephoning his staff rather than using emails to discuss government business to avoid having to disclose those discussions with the public. “I need to be able to communicate to my staff, and there are certain things I want to be able to tell them that I don’t believe should be out in the public domain.”

Tully’s report included six specific recommendations, including that Glavine “identify all emails that relate to government business and move those records into government system… then ensure that all original emails in the personal email accounts are securely deleted,” and that the department not only provide Walsh with the records she requested but also “develop and implement a policy prohibiting the use of personal email accounts to conduct government business.”

Of course, there’s no requirement for Glavine or the government to respond. There would be if the premier had followed through on his 2013 promise to improve the act. But that promise — remember? — wasn’t in his platform so it didn’t count that he promised to do it.

Happy Right to Know Week. Just don’t expect to know very much.

A version of this column originally appeared in the Halifax Examiner. To read the latest column, please subscribe.

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