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Freedom of information and patronage in Nova Scotia's new government

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Back in late September 2013, in the warm afterglow of the celebration of yet another Right to Know Week in Canada and the publication of yet another report decrying the creaking weaknesses in Nova Scotia's 35-year-old freedom of information legislation, FOI Review Officer Dulcie McCallum expressed guarded optimism.

Both Liberal leader Stephen McNeil and Tory leader Jamie Baillie -- campaigning, it should be noted, in a provincial election at the time -- had "unequivocally" agreed to the report's three specific recommendations to modernize the act. Better, the leaders of all three parties had responded "positively" to a letter from McCallum -- a former British Columbia ombudsman who'd taken on the Nova Scotia job in 2007 -- calling for yet another critical legislative reset: "To ensure true independence from government, make the review officer an officer of the legislature, like the auditor general and ombudsman."

Those positive vibes from the political leaders, McCallum wrote at the time, "tells me that there is an overall appreciation of the need to reform our access legislation."

Four months and one government later, Stephen McNeil publicly demonstrated his "unequivocal" support for more open, responsive and accountable government: he fired Dulcie McCallum.

On January 17, McNeil's new government -- having given her no reason to suspect it would not reappoint her -- informed McCallum it was saying, thank you for your "excellent service," here's your two weeks notice, goodbye.

The government, she was told, wanted to appoint its own candidate for the position.

Uh… wasn't that the problem -- that the government of the day, which will almost inevitably find itself in the cross-hairs of any review officer worthy of the name, gets to hire and fire the person -- that McCallum's legislative appointment proposal was designed to fix? And didn't Stephen McNeil respond "positively" to the idea?

Or was that Campaigning Stephen vs. governing Stephen?

Will the government now follow its own rapidly evolving tradition and appointment a party stalwart -- perhaps one with a "rejigged" resumé -- to the job?

Or will McNeil seize the opportunity, declare it had been, ahem, his intention all along to use this opportunity to amend the legislation and then turn the appointment of a new Review Officer over to the legislature?

Hold your breath… but not too long.

This article first appeared in Stephen Kimber's Halifax Metro column.

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