Nova Sco­tia gov­ern­ment’s au­thor­i­tar­ian tilt in 2018

Tri-County Vanguard - - Opinion - Jim Vib­ert

Al­most from the start, more than five years ago, Nova Sco­tia’s Lib­eral gov­ern­ment has betrayed a bit of an au­thor­i­tar­ian tilt.

In the gov­ern­ment’s first term, the ten­dency pre­sented as an affin­ity for leg­is­lated, rather than ne­go­ti­ated, pub­lic sec­tor labour con­tracts — ra­tio­nal­ized as nec­es­sary to pull the prov­ince back, yet again, from the edge of fi­nan­cial ruin.

In its sec­ond term, with a bal­anced bud­get and a re­duced ma­jor­ity, the gov­ern­ment might be ex­pected to re­sist its au­to­cratic in­cli­na­tions. That ex­pec­ta­tion was dashed in 2018.

In the year-all-but-past, the im­pe­ri­ous na­ture of Premier Stephen McNeil’s gov­ern­ment emerged as an ac­cu­rate re­flec­tion of its true char­ac­ter.

It be­gan when the gov­ern­ment re­ceived, and al­most si­mul­ta­ne­ously ac­cepted, many of the rec­om­men­da­tions in a re­port on Nova Sco­tia’s pub­lic schools that de­tected a “cri­sis of low achieve­ment” among Nova Sco­tian kids, based on stan­dard­ized test scores.

Some­how, part of the solution to that cri­sis was to abol­ish the seven elected English-lan­guage school boards. The Fran­co­phone board sur­vived.

Nei­ther Avis Glaze, the re­port’s au­thor, nor the prov­ince’s Ed­u­ca­tion Min­is­ter Zach Churchill could muster a sat­is­fy­ing ex­pla­na­tion as to how the demise of elected boards would im­prove kids’ test scores.

Re­gard­less, the boards were sum­mar­ily dis­missed and all power and au­thor­ity for Nova Sco­tia’s pub­lic schools was vested in a single cen­tral au­thor­ity — the min­is­ter’s of­fice.

Elected school boards that had met in pub­lic for years were re­placed by an ad­vi­sory coun­cil that meets in se­cret. Local, or at least re­gional ac­count­abil­ity, was usurped by cen­tral­ized au­to­cratic con­trol.

At about the same time it was killing off school boards, the gov­ern­ment stum­bled into a dif­fer­ent kind of cri­sis when it dis­cov­ered its Free­dom of In­for­ma­tion and Pro­tec­tion of Pri­vacy (FOIPOP) web por­tal had belched out scads of pri­vate in­for­ma­tion about hun­dreds of Nova Sco­tians.

The gov­ern­ment re­sponded with an un­jus­ti­fied heavy hand. It de­cided to play the breach as a de­lib­er­ate, crim­i­nal hack and ginned-up the cops to get af­ter the perp.

Po­lice raided the domi­cile of a nice Nova Sco­tian fam­ily, one of whom had in­no­cently down­loaded con­tent from the site. No charges re­sulted be­cause there was no crime. The flawed web­site dis­gorged pri­vate in­for­ma­tion with ease and with­out ma­li­cious in­tent on any­one’s part.

When op­po­si­tion mem­bers of the leg­is­la­ture’s pub­lic ac­counts com­mit­tee wanted to hear from of­fi­cials in the In­ter­nal Ser­vices Depart­ment, who are re­spon­si­ble for the of­fend­ing site, they were blocked by the gov­ern­ment ma­jor­ity on the com­mit­tee — a fore­run­ner of worse to come.

Weeks later, the gov­ern­ment ma­jor­ity forced a rule change that short­ens the reach of the com­mit­tee while ex­tract­ing most of its teeth.

For decades, pub­lic ac­counts has been the best place for op­po­si­tion MLAs to get an­swers to ques­tions min­is­ters evade in the house. That changed with the rules.

Armed with a let­ter from au­di­tor gen­eral Michael Pickup com­plain­ing that the com­mit­tee does not fol­low up on his au­dits, the Lib­eral ma­jor­ity pushed through a rule to, in ef­fect, limit the com­mit­tee to sub­jects raised by the au­di­tor gen­eral.

The change will also limit po­lit­i­cal dam­age to the gov­ern­ment, be­cause the com­mit­tee will re­hash the find­ings of the au­di­tor rather than un­earth pre­vi­ously un­known gov­ern­ment mis­deeds, as it has in the past.

Bury­ing po­ten­tially em­bar­rass­ing or po­lit­i­cally dam­ag­ing in­for­ma­tion is a set piece for this gov­ern­ment. Through­out 2018, it feuded with FOIPOP com­mis­sioner Catherine Tully over the re­lease of in­for­ma­tion she wanted the gov­ern­ment to cough up.

Nova Sco­tia’s out­dated FOIPOP law has be­come a tool that gov­ern­ment ac­tors wield to pro­tect their se­crets. The law has been used and mis­used to deny ac­cess to in­for­ma­tion, and the com­mis­sioner has re­peat­edly shot down the gov­ern­ment’s rea­sons for those de­nials.

Tully’s most re­cent rul­ing in­structed the gov­ern­ment to re­lease de­tails of its pay­ments to Bay Fer­ries, op­er­a­tor of the Maine-Yar­mouth ferry.

The gov­ern­ment with­held the in­for­ma­tion, cit­ing ei­ther the prov­ince’s eco­nomic in­ter­ests or the com­pany’s com­pet­i­tive po­si­tion, nei­ther of which were valid rea­sons to keep Nova Sco­tians in the dark about how their taxes are spent, said Tully.

But the find­ings of Nova Sco­tia’s FOIPOP com­mis­sioner are not bind­ing, and a gov­ern­ment with some­thing to hide can — and does — sim­ply ig­nore her.

In 2018, Nova Sco­tia’s gov­ern­ment elim­i­nated a demo­cratic in­sti­tu­tion; evis­cer­ated the fact-find­ing power of a key leg­isla­tive com­mit­tee; and with­held pub­lic in­for­ma­tion as it saw fit.

That’s a record any au­to­crat can sup­port.

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