Battle for release of subsidy figures shows information laws need reform: expert
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HALIFAX -- A Nova Scotia decision recommending a Crown agency reveal how many jobs were created by firms that received government subsidies shouldn't have taken almost five years -- and demonstrates the need for reforms to Canadian access laws, says a freedom of information advocate.
Ken Rubin, an Ottawa researcher and consultant with decades of experience using the legislation, says provisions in the Freedom of Information law relied upon by Nova Scotia Business Inc. to hold up the release should be reformed.
"There are grey areas, but this is hardly a grey area. These are public dollars where you get rebates if you create jobs," he said.
"It shouldn't take that long. Let's stop playing the game and be helpful and release stuff."
The decision by Information Commissioner Catherine Tully comes over five years after a May 2010 request by The Canadian Press asking for the job creation numbers that resulted from payroll subsidies handed out in the first five years of the agency's existence.
The Crown agency located a database on 55 companies, many of which agreed to reveal the job creation figures that resulted from payroll rebates received between 2002 and 2007.
However, six didn't consent and the agency didn't forward their figures by 2013, when an initial article was prepared on results from the program.
The provisions relied upon by NSBI include a clause -- common across the country and in the federal law -- that allows the businesses to apply for exemptions if they could "reasonably expect" to suffer harm from competitors receiving the information.
Tully's decision finds that the six companies never provided any evidence and she rejected the arguments of potential harm provided by NSBI, saying the agency provided no evidence to back its argument.
Rubin says the provisions that potentially protect businesses that receive public funds from disclosing the results should be re-written and potentially dropped.
He said the provisions like the one used by NSBI are frequently used across the country, and run counter to basic approaches to open government.
"They are a reverse freedom of information scheme that we desperately need to change," he said.
Instead, he said the legislation should make clear that companies receiving public money have to reveal what the results are, with few exemptions other than some trade secrets.
Laurel Broten, the chief executive of agency, said in an interview Tuesday the standard terms and conditions given to companies receiving payroll rebates were changed last year to permit the "occasional" release of the job numbers for any subsidies since last October.
"They fully understand this information will be disclosed up front," she said. "It's a conversation we have directly with clients ... It's a big change."
"I hope the public sees a shift in our embracing of transparency."
On Wednesday evening, the agency released a reply to the information commissioner, saying it would comply with her recommendations and release the documents.
Tully declined comment on her report, and a spokeswoman said it is a legal decision that speaks for itself.
NSBI says it committed over $60 million in payroll rebates to 17 companies in 2014-15.