Right to Know Day, or Groundhog Day?

On Thursday September 26, to commemorate International Right to Know Day, Nova Scotia’s Information and Privacy Commissioner held a panel event: “Democracy In Action: The Future of Your Right to Know”. As one of the panelists, I found the phrasing ironic, given the way inaction has become a byword for Nova Scotia’s record on this core democratic issue.

After being elected in a campaign that included promises to reform Nova Scotia’s Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act, Stephen McNeil, once he became Premier, decided that inaction was preferable, and that the system did not need any improvements after all. In 2016, after the Information and Privacy Commissioner chastised the Premier for his habit of leaving sensitive matters to be discussed by phone rather than by email, in order to avoid leaving any kind of paper trail that could later be subject to an information request, some in the province began to call for a duty to document, which would legally require officials to make a good faith effort to create accurate and complete records of their decision-making. This kind of rule was recently put in place in British Columbia. It is also just sound business practice to make sure that you document major decisions. But the Premier decided that inaction was the way to go, and as far as we know, his habit of moving sensitive conversations offline in order to avoid the threat of public scrutiny remains unchanged to this day. In her 2019 report, the Information and Privacy Commissioner said that her office is being stretched dangerously thin, due to a significant growth in the number of complaints that are being filed, with no concomitant boost to her staffing and resources. Given the culture of secrecy that permeates the provincial government, starting with the Premier’s own admitted hostility to transparency, it’s no surprise that journalists and members of the public are increasingly forced to rely on adjudication in order to get access to government records. As of yet, the Information and Privacy Commissioner’s pleas for adequate resourcing have fallen on deaf ears. One again, inaction is the order of the day.

Hostility to public accountability and transparency are hardly surprising from elected leaders. It is not, after all, a pleasant process to have journalists snooping through your daily activities, and checking to see whether you did anything wrong. But this is our democratic system, and it is vital to keeping politicians honest, and ensuring that the public interest is represented in the often opaque and byzantine operations of the government. It is, as the Supreme Court of Canada has noted, an important and constitutionally protected right.

And yet, every year at around this time, journalists and civil society seem to go through the same Groundhog Day-esque routine of noting that our provincial access to information system has stagnated to the point of being hopelessly outdated, and wondering when, if ever, there will come a politician, any politician, who actually has the courage to look beyond immediate political expediency and fix things, to strengthen our democracy for the good of the people of Nova Scotia.

Not this year, it seems.

(This op-ed originally ran in the Chronicle-Herald on September 26).