Premier Stephen McNeil and Lu Shaye, Chinese ambassador to Canada, pose for photos after a meeting in Halifax in November. The names of people McNeil met with when he ventured to China has been withheld.
Stephen McNeil’s time in office has been a dark and regressive period for transparency in Nova Scotia. It looks like it might get worse before it gets better.
In November, a Nova Scotia journalist filed an access-to-information request for the premier’s schedule from his recent trip to Asia. In responding, the government redacted the names of nearly every individual whom the premier met with, claiming that this information would be an unreasonable violation of personal privacy, and that disclosing the identities of those meeting the premier would have a harmful economic impact on Nova Scotia.
It is an absurd misreading of Nova Scotia’s freedom-of-information rules to suggest that privacy should prevail over meetings that the premier carries out in his official capacity. The idea that merely disclosing the names of people whom the premier met with, or the names of markets the premier made an official visit to, would somehow undermine Nova Scotia’s financial interests, is also not credible.
Heads of government around the world routinely publish full details of their meeting schedules. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who himself made a recent trip to China, published the names of all the business leaders whom he met with. I strongly doubt that Jack Ma is considering cutting his ties with Canadian companies as a result. The redactions to Premier McNeil’s schedule suggest that, rather than carefully engaging with the material under request to consider whether parts need to be removed, officials are combing through the rules to find any possible justification for denying information, regardless of whether its publication would cause any actual harm.
It didn’t have to be this way. Transparency advocates were initially optimistic about Stephen McNeil’s election as premier, since he had campaigned on a promise to reform the province’s badly outdated Freedom of Information and Protection and Privacy Act. This promise was jettisoned shortly after he was elected. Just nine months into his term, he declared that the system was working fine. Last year, he stunned journalists by admitting that he tries not to leave a paper trail whenever possible, specifically in order to avoid public scrutiny through the access-to-information law.
Access to information is a critical tool for journalists, NGOs and the public at large to hold their elected officials accountable. This system is vital to uncovering corruption, and cutting through official PR to find out what is really going on. Refusing to disclose even basic and innocuous information jams up this process, and is a sign of hostility to transparency and public oversight. If the premier wanted to maintain this level of secrecy over his official duties, he should have stayed in China. This approach has no place in a progressive democracy.