The Three Bland Men: Rankin, Delorey, Kousoulis.

If any of the Three Bland Men currently vying for votes among the Liberal faithful needs advice on a shiny new policy promise — one that could not only attract the partisans who will determine the next party leader but also appeal to the rest of us who will ultimately decide whether that new Liberal leader gets to stick around to serve an actual term as the elected premier of the people — allow me to offer a modest suggestion.

No need to thank me.

If I were Randy Delorey, or Labi Kousoulis, or Iain Rankin, I would promise that my first order of business on the first business day of the new winter session of the legislature — the near date of which I will pledge to announce in my acceptance speech on February 6 — will be to introduce a new Openness in Government Act.

The guiding principle of this new legislation will be that all government business is public business. My government’s default positions will be that the public’s business should be conducted in public, and that we will be continuously accountable to the public for the decisions we make. If there are exceptions, they will be spelled out in the legislation. If not, there will be a public process by which any government would need to justify any additional secrecy, and those decisions would be subject to judicial review.

If I was seeking specifics to incorporate into my new overarching legislation, I would look no further than cataloguing even some of the many and various ways in which Stephen McNeil has been un-open, unaccountable, opaque — and pledge to do the opposite.

Let’s start inside the legislature with…

  • mandated annual sittings of the House of Assembly, specifying not just the minimum number of sessions of the legislature each year, but also setting a minimum number of days the House of Assembly must meet. If the legislature doesn’t meet for those minimum number of days, MLAs would see their pay docked. (That should encourage compliance.)
  • Oh, and let’s change the way Question Period works so there are actual questions and real answers instead of theatrical set pieces and “fake wrestling,” as former NDP leader Alexa McDonough many years ago so aptly described what still happens in legislatures today. (I know, I know. That’s not really something government legislation will change, but a new government could do much to set the tone and make the legislature itself more meaningful and the government more accountable.)

Let’s move on to committees. Since legislative committees are among the few places where real oversight and accountability can happen, let’s not only make an opposition member the chair of key committees like public accounts, health, etc., but let’s also give the opposition greater power to call witnesses and compel documents. Down with the Fangless Five and the Insensate Seven, and all their bobble-headed, yes-premier friends.

We also need to insert a few teeth in the provincial lobbyist registry legislation so a former prime minister doesn’t get to lobby a sitting premier while pretending they’re just talking about what it’s like to be born into large families. We need a lobbyists’ oversight body with the power to investigate what happens if lobbyists or politicians violate our soon-to-be new tougher rules of engagement. And to penalize them if they do.

Our new premier should not only promise, in writing — as Stephen McNeil himself did days before the 2013 provincial election, to “expand the powers and mandate of the [Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner for Nova Scotia], particularly through granting her order-making power” — but he should also take a blood oath to include those powers and mandate in his new Openness in Government Act.

The new legislation should also make clear to businesses wanting to do business with the government that they can have no expectation of secrecy when it comes to contracts that involve the expenditure of public funds.

And one more. How about establishing a legislative budget office, similar to the parliamentary budget office that could provide the legislature — and the public — with independent analysis of the government’s estimates and financial projections?

I could go on. Stephen McNeil’s legacy of un-openness is an open book.

Instead, let me invite you to add your own favoured clauses for a new Openness in Government Act we can share with the current Liberal leadership hopefuls.

They should thank us.

But would Liberal partisans really vote for a would-be leader who promised openness? It depends.

Rather than couch such a promise as a rebuke to the reality of seven years of Stephen McNeil’s closed doors, which it is, his wannabe replacements should describe their plan as simply the natural positive evolution of McNeil’s self-declared success in making Nova Scotia “the most open and transparent province in Canada.”

I’ll leave it up to them to come up with the right obfuscatory phrases to mask reality. They are, after all, the politicians. They should be good at that.

But the reality, in fact, is that the idea of accountability isn’t so much a partisan issue as it is a matter of who’s in and who’s out. Witness Stephen McNeil’s 2013 pre-election promise to expand the powers of the information commissioner and his continuing ludicrous claim that his is the most open, transparent government in Nova Scotia history.

Transparency, it seems, is aspirational for all politicians until they have secrets they believe are worth keeping.

Consider then Liberal opposition leader Justin Trudeau’s 2014 private member’s bill that proposed all government data and information would be “open by default.” We know how that’s turned out.

So, the best way to create accountability is to legislate it… I know, I know. Stephen Harper, 2006. His new government’s first order of business was also a Federal Accountability Act that established new “ethics regulations and oversight.” And we also know how that turned out.

Admittedly, there are no easy or sure ways to ensure governments are open and accountable to the people they represent.

But the best of that bad lot of ways is to make openness, transparency and accountability the law.

Who knows? For Rankin, or Kousoulis, or Delorey, actually following through on such a promise might give them a chance at a real first term as our premier.

You’re welcome.

Stephen Kimber

Stephen Kimber is an award-winning writer, editor, broadcaster, and educator. A journalist for more than 50 years whose work has appeared in most Canadian newspapers and magazines, he is the author of...

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  1. Enforceable openness and transparency is foundational to making our democratic process better….and by better I mean more optimal outcomes for all citizens, more efficiently.

  2. Stephen, you forgot to mention Burrill and Houston. We want Burrill and Houston to sit down together and draft the new legislation in consultation with the public. We want them on the record. And we want all municipalities to be open. We want American style FOI or Thatcher style FOI. We want to be treated as adults. And the idea that documents minutes of in camera council meeting being locked down for 100 years is ludicrous – no more than 30 years and the same for cabinet minutes.
    The media need to ask every councillor and every MLA how they will be more open and accountable.

      1. The Americans are MUCH better at FOI than are Canadians. It’s not even comparable, really. This comes from a reporter who has worked in both countries.

        1. FOI in the USA starts with the presumption that the people are entitled to know what government/public agency is up to. Margaret Thatcher introduced FOI to the UK because councils were very secretive. I am unable to access minutes of in-camera meetings of Dartmouth council and Metro Authority that I attended as a member; I wish I had kept everything and made the documents available to anyone who wanted them. All I can offer is my memory of what took place in public and in-camera.
          Perhaps it is time for a group of citizens to form an organization and produce draft legislation – an all party group would be preferable but we really need like minded people to come together with one aim – greater transparency.

  3. King Stevie set a precedence that is just too juicy for the next egomaniac to veer from.

    His Highness has suspended democracy and gets away with it. I am utterly baffled by this but such is the basis of this article.

    As much as I despise the orange haired fellow, I have chosen Trump’s (for now) America. They vote here, they have elected representatives sit in this chamber of sorts that’s just built for debate and discussion AND they seem to have a government that’s more than just one person (and his weird boyfriend, Dr. Strange).

    God Bless America. God Damn Nova Scotia.