Privacy Commissioner succumbs to politician’s fallacy

Let’s get two things straight.

  • Kirby McVicar was dead wrong to release personal health information, particularly mental health information, about former cabinet minister Andrew Younger.
  • Information and Privacy Commissioner Catherine Tully is dead wrong to propose sweeping expansion of privacy policing in response.

The point about McVicar is so obvious it hardly needs stating. Everyone knew it was wrong the second he did it. The fact he made these disclosures in an attempt to save his own skin only compounds the error.

But Tully’s over-reaching proposals—to install a Chief Privacy Officer, subject every civil servant to special training in privacy protection, and generally ramp up government’s already excessive privacy policing—will do far more damage than McVicar’s one-off indiscretion.

Privacy policy is every unaccountable bureaucrat’s favourite doctrine. It is not the last but the first refuge of a civil service scoundrel.

Privacy was the main weapon used by the Department of Community Service to evade responsibility for its scurrilous defamation of Fr. Paul Abbass, the former director of the Talbot House addiction treatment centre who was vindicated only after a sustained campaign by Community Services to sully his good name. Throughout the controversy, the department hid behind privacy provisions of the Freedom of Information Act to withhold records that would have shed light on its perfidy.

Blanket application of privacy taboos hampers the collection and analysis of demographic data that could drive better policy decisions and even better medical care.

We have gone overboard on privacy protection, and Tully is wrong to urge even greater excesses. She is guilty of the classic Politician’s Syllogism:

  1. Something must be done
  2. This is something
  3. Therefore, we must do this.

As Sir Arnold Robinson told Sir Humphrey Appleby in a 1988 episode of the BBC sitcom Yes, Prime Minister, “Doing the wrong thing is worse than doing nothing.”

Nova Scotia’s Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act is already full of loopholes rooted in concern for privacy. Politicians and bureaucrats already have an overflowing toolkit for evading accountability and transparency.

As Freedom of Information Commissioner, Tully, of all people, should not be offering fresh modes of evasion. She is urging government to do the wrong thing.