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Three Promises for Transparency in Nova Scotia

774px-Halifax_electoral_district_mapFor years, politicians across Canada have been promising transparent and accountable government, and failing to deliver. From Canada’s lukewarm participation in the Open Government Partnership to the many failed attempts at reforming the federal Access to Information Act, Canadians have become used to a familiar cycle, where candidates pledge bold improvements during the election campaign, only to backslide on these commitments after the election is over.

Here in Nova Scotia, there is ample evidence of a deficit in public accountability. The clearest manifestation of this problem came in 2010, when Auditor General Jacques Lapointe released a report that revealed widespread abuse of MLA expenses by members of all three major political parties. The revelations led to criminal charges being laid against four serving and former MLAs. Although steps have been taken to tighten spending rules, there is no indication that any progress has been made in tackling the underlying problems at the heart of the matter. The Management Commission, which was created in the aftermath of the scandal, may work to prevent fraudulent expenses claims going forward but it will not change the overall political climate under which so many MLAs felt comfortable abusing the system. This requires fostering a broader climate of accountability within government. A key step along that road is an effective right to information for Nova Scotians.

On 23 September 2013, Centre for Law and Democracy released an Analysis of the weaknesses in Nova Scotia’s right to information framework, and recommended root and branch reform of the province’s Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (FOIPOP), including 18 major changes to bring the FOIPOP more closely into line with international standards.

In response to the Analysis, the leaders of all three major parties expressed a willingness to consider the recommendations. Liberal Leader Stephen McNeil stated that he would review the FOIPOP with the aim of making Nova Scotia “the most open and transparent province in Canada.” New Democratic Party Leader Darrell Dexter claimed he would be “happy to consider” any “constructive suggestions” in the Analysis. Progressive Conservative Leader Jamie Baillie also expressed support for the Analysis’ recommendations.

While it is good to hear that all three candidates for Premier endorse the need for greater transparency in government, all three expressed their support in somewhat vague terms. Experience suggests that broad promises made during the course of a campaign are often forgotten once a party is in power. In order to ensure that the candidates will follow through on their commitments, we have boiled our recommendations down to three core ideas, which we call on all three candidates to include as part of their platforms:

1. If elected Premier, I will expand the powers and mandate of the Review Officer, particularly through granting her order-making power.

2. If elected Premier, I will impose a binding timeline of 30 days, extendable once by a maximum of 30 days, for responding to access to information requests.

3. If elected Premier, in our dealings with government lawyers, my government will only claim solicitor-client privilege in cases where confidentiality is necessary to protect an impending court case or negotiation.

None of these three ideas are particularly radical. For example, oversight bodies in Alberta, British Columbia, Manitoba, Ontario, Prince Edward Island and Quebec all have the power to issue legally binding orders. In India, a country which has thirty times Canada’s population, and where the public sector has far less access to advanced data management technology, the Right to Information Act, 2005 requires government officials to respond to requests within 30 days with no possibility of an extension.

By endorsing these three promises, Nova Scotia’s leadership candidates can show that they are serious about improving transparency in the province. The trust deficit between Nova Scotia’s voters and its elected officials has never been higher. It is time to put in a place a system with real accountability.

For further information, please contact:

Michael Karanicolas
Legal Officer
Centre for Law and Democracy
email: michael@law-democracy.org
tel: +1 902 448-5290
twitter: @law_democracy

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