Chief Electoral Obfuscation Officer

Before the end of June, each year, Nova Scotia law requires the Chief Electoral Officer to a publish all the political contributions made in the previous year. For the years 2007, 2008, and 2009, Christine McCulloch complied with the law, posting the information to the Elections Nova Scotia website in a manner that was accessible, searchable, printable, and even, with effort, downloadable to a citizen’s own database.

This gave every citizen the tools to determine whether contractors who won big roadbuilding contracts, storeowners who won liquor commission franchises, or communications consultants (like me!) who were selected for Communications Nova Scotia’s Standing Offer List were also disproportionate donors to the governing party (or any other party). The system was accountable, transparent, and fully compliant with the law and with the province’s website accessibility standards.

This summer, McCulloch quietly kneecapped it.

The data is still there; It’s just that McCulloch has deliberately impaired the citizen’s ability to access it in a useful way. The 2010 political donations appear in a locked, graphic PDF file. This means a citizen can read it, but can’t search for a name, address, donation amount, or any other information it contains, other than by leafing through it. It’s as if Canada411 replaced its searchable database with a hard copy phone book.

In an email, Elections Nova Scotia spokesman Dana Philip Doiron defended the change on grounds that the agency  is ”bound by the Privacy Act, which requires that we guard against misuse of private information — names, addresses, etc.’ [My emphasis.] Doiron didn’t say whether he meant the Nova Scotia Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (FOIPOP), or the federal Privacy Act. The latter has no application to the provincial government. Since the Chief Electoral Officer reports to the Speaker of the House of Assembly, it’s extremely doubtful whether the provincial act applies either, even if one excepts the dubious claim that the FOIPOP Act prohibits release of names and addresses specifically mandated by another act.

In any case, the new restrictions don’t shield the names and addresses of donors. They’re all there for anyone willing to take the time and effort to find them. They’re just unsearchable and un-copyable. This makes the information less useful to citizens, researchers, and reporters. Whether McCulloch’s retreat from accessibility is an actual violation of the law requiring disclosure, or merely an affront to its spirit, a skeptical citizen would be forgiven for concluding that she deliberately chose a method of publication that would subvert accessibility, openness, and transparency. The fact that the news release announcing the 2010 donations list failed to disclose the change, and that it listed a link to the document that does not function, doesn’t increase confidence.

It’s extremely disappointing that Ms. McCulloch would behave like this. If the Nova Scotia’s Chief Electoral Officer won’t stand up for transparent and accessible disclosure of political donations, who the heck will?

H/T: Wallace McLean