Province hikes price of truth

Reprinted with permission from the Halifax Daily News  

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Wednesday, March 27, 2002

Peter McLaughlin

The Daily News (Halifax)

Nova Scotians may no longer be able to afford the truth.

The provincial government is hiking fees on freedom of information requests more than fivefold, to $25 from $5 for each request, making it the most expensive province in which to obtain public information.

“That sounds like a massive increase, but if a person is trying to get the information and they need that information, I would suggest that’s fairly reasonable,” Deputy Premier Ron Russell said yesterday.

He said it’s necessary to cover rising costs, but critics say it will curb public access to vital information.

“This is the political equivalent of pulling down the blinds, closing the doors, and locking it before you do the dirty work,” said NDP Leader Darrell Dexter. “They want to keep the public in the dark.”

Search fees will also jump to $30 an hour from $20, and for the first time, a $25 fee will be charged to appeal when government rejects handing over public documents.

The province will also scrap its practice of waiving fees for the first two search hours.

Opposition parties, which make dozens of freedom of information requests every year, accused the government of jacking up fees in an attempt to make it too costly to get potentially embarrassing information.

“This is a calculated move, and the purpose is quite clear: it’s to try to stifle requests for information from this government and to keep the real goings-on of this government behind closed doors,” said Liberal justice critic Michel Samson.

The new fees come after a series of embarrassing revelations through freedom of information requests, including the Liberals’ uncovering of big raises in the premier’s office.

Russell denied secrecy is behind the higher fees. He said it’s time people who use the system start paying a bigger share. Last year, fees covered just $9,000 of the $700,000 cost of handling 1,000 applications.

“Seniors pay 30 per cent of their drug costs. Patients using ambulances pay over 20 per cent of their transportation costs. Is it fair for freedom of information applicants to pay little more than one per cent of costs they incur?” asked Russell.

Darce Fardy, the province’s review officer, said the fees will discourage many people from using the service.

“I’m very disappointed at this turn of events,” he said. “I can’t predict the impact, but I’m afraid it will put access out of reach for many private citizens.”

When Ontario raised fees in 1996, the number of requests for information dropped 25 per cent from 1995 to 1998.  

© Copyright 2002 The Daily News

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