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VIBERT: Nova Scotia government’s authoritarian tilt in 2018

Jim Vibert
Jim Vibert - SaltWire Network

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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