Secret donations

Well this is disturbing. In defending his decision to keep the names of private donors to his campaign secret until after election day, Liberal Leader Stephen McNeil cited privacy concerns. Since provincial law requires the names and addresses of all donors, and the amounts of their donations, to be disclosed and published annually by Elections Nova Scotia, this looked like a feeble excuse to avoid drawing pre-election attention to any embarrassing donors on the Liberal list.

Now it turns out that Chief Electoral Officer Christine McCulloch handed McNeil—and the other three party leaders—a fig leaf they could use to hide any sketchy contributors from voter scrutiny.

Contrarian suspected as much when a candidate for the Green Party said they had intended to post their list of donors on the campaign website today, but were holding off because, “The Chief Electoral Officer apparently has concerns about compromising the privacy of individual donors by releasing their names.”

This sounded absurd, so we checked with the Chief Electoral Office, where spokesman Dana Philip Doiron responded:

[T]he Chief electoral Officer has advised all registered political parties… that they should seek their own legal counsel before publishing the names and other personal information of contributors as they may be subject to the Protection of Privacy provisions of FOIPOP [the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act], while the reporting by Elections Nova Scotia is deemed to be in the public interest and not subject to FOIPOP.

A quick read of the FOIPOP act confirms the obvious. It applies only to “records in the custody or under the control of a public body, including court administration records.” It has no conceivable application to records held by a political party.

Pressed on this point, Doiron confirmed that McCulloch gave her advice in response to inquiries from political parties as to whether any legal barrier exists to their disclosure.

“She told them, ‘I can’t answer that. I suggest you ask your legal counsel to see whether you are covered by the FOIPOP act.’ They wanted a legal opinion. She is not in the business of handing out legal opinions.”

In short, McCulloch, a public servant for whom openness and transparency should be paramount, instead displayed an excess of bureaucratic caution, and handed politicians an excuse for hiding embarrassing contributions from voters.

Eventually, voters will find out the names and addresses of all the individuals who donated to McNeil’s campaign, including whatever names he would rather they didn’t discover before voting day. McCulloch will post the names of all donors on her website, long after the ballots have been cast.

McCulloch’s advice, or non-advice as she might prefer to describe it, is being used to misrepresent the rules of election disclosure. To preserve the integrity of her office, she should correct the record with a prompt public acknowledgement of the obvious: that the FOIPOP Act presents no barrier to disclosure of campaign contributors.