N.S. premier's promise to increase powers of privacy commissioner may be softening

Premier Tim Houston previously pledged to give Nova Scotia's privacy commissioner order-making power, but now he says he's
Premier Tim Houston previously pledged to give Nova Scotia's privacy commissioner order-making power, but now he says he's

Premier Tim Houston's commitment to giving the province's privacy commissioner more power could be softening.

Nova Scotia is the only province where the privacy commissioner is not an independent officer of the legislature. Recommendations from the commissioner's office are not binding, which means government departments and other public bodies are not compelled to follow them.

"We're looking at all the options, for sure," Houston said to reporters at Province House on Thursday. "We'll do the research and we'll come up with the place that best suits the needs of making sure that Nova Scotians can access the information they're looking for."

It's a departure from the commitment he made while in opposition to strengthen the commissioner's authority. He also repeated the pledge about a year ago.

"We're committed to it, there's no question about that," Houston told reporters last November.

It was something Houston made an issue of while in opposition, going as far as successfully suing the former Liberal government when it refused to follow a recommendation from the commissioner to release the management fee paid to the company that operates the ferry service between Nova Scotia and Maine.

Justice Minister Brad Johns has said his office is working on a full review of the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act, something he said would take time and cost upwards of $1 million.

The mandate letter for Johns includes giving the privacy commissioner order-making power.

Liberal Leader Zach Churchill said it seems like Houston said what he thought he needed to say to gain power and is now changing his mind.

"He said one thing in opposition, he says the opposite now," Churchill told reporters. "That speaks for itself."

NDP Leader Claudia Chender said Houston thought the public would appreciate transparency and accountability when he was in opposition, but things seem to have changed since he got into the premier's office.

"Now that he's in government, most of the actions show that their approach is to consolidate power and do things expediently. And that rules out actually having full transparency and accountability to the public."

Houston would not be the first premier to go back on a promise to extend the powers of the privacy commissioner.

During the 2013 provincial election, then-Liberal leader Stephen McNeil signed a document pledging 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."

Upon becoming premier, McNeil failed to make good on his promise.