Is Stephen McNeil’s concern over a ‘business chill’ a legitimate fear?

First thing Monday morning, Nova Scotia Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Houston invited reporters to record his walk to the Law Courts in Halifax to file papers he hopes will eventually pry loose details of the deal Bay Ferries has with the province.

The move came roughly a month after the deputy transportation minister told the party and two news organizations he would not be abiding by recommendations from Nova Scotia’s information and privacy commissioner to release those papers. 

Houston’s walk, court papers in hand, was designed to keep the media spotlight on his party’s most recent knock against the governing Liberals: secrecy.

The Official Opposition’s “What Are The Liberals Hiding?” campaign was front and centre at the PC’s annual general meeting in Halifax last weekend.

The Liberal caucus counterattacked, calling the legal action “a political stunt” and warning Houston was “playing politics with Nova Scotia’s economy.”

Nova Scotia Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Houston appears outside the Law Courts in Halifax on Monday. (CBC/ Jean Laroche)

Speaking to reporters Monday afternoon, Premier Stephen McNeil focused on the possible economic consequences of the fight over the Bay Ferries documents, saying it sends the “wrong message” to businesses.

“What the Conservative Party and Tim Houston are saying to private industry globally who are looking at North America, including this city, [is] … you potentially run the risk of being taken to court over proprietary information,” said McNeil.

“It will send a chill [to] people … looking to do business in this province.”

‘Boogeyman politics’

But a Dalhousie University economist suggests the chill would barely rate a shiver to anyone doing business internationally.

Prof. Lars Osberg teaches economics at Dalhousie University in Halifax. (Submitted by Lars Osberg)

“It’s going to be pretty marginal and not detectable in real data,” said Lars Osberg. “The international business community has a lot of uncertainties to worry about these days from trade wars between United States and China, the price of oil, Brexit. 

“There’s lots going on in the international business community that’s way, way bigger than this.”

Osberg called the premier’s warning of potentially serious consequences “boogeyman politics” where McNeil is trying to “scare the electorate with a dire outcome.”

In an unrelated case, the day after the deputy transportation minister said the Bay Ferries documents would not be released, a Nova Scotia Supreme Court justice ruled nursing home provider Shannex could keep its documents private.

The company had asked the court to bar the release of details of its contract with the province after an unidentified member of the public requested the information through freedom of information legislation.

A dubious win?

McNeil cited that case as an example of the information and privacy commissioner failing to strike the right balance between the public’s right to know and safeguarding confidential business information.

“This is … a very similar situation,” said McNeil. “The courts ruled that we were right. The courts ruled that information should not be released.”

What the premier failed to say, however, was that the provincial government had actually agreed to release the information, but Shannex opposed the decision.

The province’s information and privacy commissioner recommended the government reveal how much taxpayers are paying Bay Ferries to run its service between Yarmouth and Maine. (Brett Ruskin/CBC)

Asked to explain why McNeil called the court decision a win for the province, his communications adviser David Jackson responded in an email: “Doesn’t it illustrate the fact the province has to be careful about what information is released?”

“Health [Department] wanted to release it, the review officer agreed, but in the end, the court did not,” he wrote. “So doesn’t that show caution around releasing info is warranted?”

Nova Scotians should expect to hear more in the coming weeks from the PCs about Liberal secrecy, and from the Liberals about how the Official Opposition is ready to gamble with the province’s economy.

The spring sitting is scheduled to begin Feb. 28 — less than two weeks before this case goes before a Supreme Court judge. 


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