Liberal leadership contenders promise to release COVID-19 spending details

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Premier Stephen McNeil has repeatedly said it's not his job to detail what his government has spent this year on COVID-19 stimulus projects, but the three men who want his job are promising to do just that if they are chosen to succeed him.

The $228 million in funding is being used for a variety of infrastructure projects across the province, in part to drive employment during the pandemic.

"Yes, I think public dollars should be transparent because they are public," Iain Rankin said when asked if a list of those projects and their associated cost should be released by the provincial government.

"I would certainly work to make the list of projects and cost estimates available," said Randy Delorey.

Labi Kousoulis said if he were premier, he'd have already posted it, likely on a Nova Scotia government web page.

"Could even put it on our [access to information] portal or our open-data portal, and it's available to all," he said.

Candidates say other changes in order

It's not the only issue where the leadership contenders differ with McNeil on government transparency.

Although he promised to change the law that governs Nova Scotia's access to information ahead of the 2013 election that made him premier, McNeil has since repeatedly said the law is fine as is.

Just four days before election day, McNeil promised, in writing, that if he became premier he would "expand the powers and mandate of the [Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner for Nova Scotia], particularly through granting her order-making power."

Though the leadership candidates aren't prepared to commit to those specific promises, Delorey and Rankin both think changes are in order.

"I do think it's time to look at revamping and modernizing those pieces of legislation," said Delorey.

"I think we can do more to be proactive with bringing documents forward and not having to go through that whole process," said Rankin, adding he would look at a review of the freedom of information rules.

"I believe in transparency and I think there's room we can improve."

Kousoulis was noncommittal, especially about whether the commissioner should have the power to order that documents are produced, rather than simply recommended, and whether the office should be answerable to that the Nova Scotia Legislature rather than the Justice Department.

"I have to think about it," he said. "I never actually gave it thought in terms of what powers the individual should have or not."

Mixed response on lobbyist registry

Kousoulis also offered a similar response about the province's registry of lobbyists, which critics claim is ineffectual and outdated.

The federal government system allows the public to know who is lobbying ministers and top officials, and when and how.

But Nova Scotia's registry is just a list of lobbyists, the departments they plan to lobby and their general areas of interest.

"I'd be open to looking at it like I'd look at everything else," said Kousoulis. "But I've never really … given thought to the registry."

His rivals were willing to go further.

"I do think our registry in Nova Scotia is dated," said Delorey. "I think it certainly needs more teeth."

"I have been looking at other models like the federal one, actually, to see how we can modernize and bring some more teeth to that registry," he said.

Virtual convention in February

"Transparency has to be a guiding principle for our democracy," said Rankin. "And so I want Nova Scotia to have the most transparent process that we can practically implement.

"If Ottawa has a better system then we need to catch up and do that."

Party members will elect their new leader, who becomes premier, on Feb. 6. There will be a virtual convention based at the convention centre in Halifax.

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