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Conventional tactics

A laughable failure at censoring documents shows that convention centre advocates aren't interested in informed debate.

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Last week, provincial infrastructure minister Bill Estabrooks nearly made good on his pledge to release uncensored versions of the four reports that supposedly make the business case for a new convention centre---one of the reports, by Criterion Communications, was redacted in two places, and another, by the consulting firm Deloitte, had a redacted table in it.

Earlier, Estabrooks' communications manager Cathy MacIsaac had warned me that "small portions" of the reports would remained censored in order to protect "trade secrets" ---information that might hurt the competitiveness of crown corporation Trade Centre Limited or of Rank, Inc., the company picked as the private partner in the convention centre arrangement. I was skeptical, but there wasn't much I could do about the censored parts of the documents anyway.

That is, until a reader alerted me to a laughable failure on the censor's part. The reports had been put online, and the censor had simply changed the background colour of the censored portions to black, so that at first glance the documents looked like a typical blacked-out hard copy document. But the censor failed to remove the text, so I found that if I copied the "censored" text in the Criterion report and pasted it into a Word document, I could read it.

Turns out both redacted parts said the same thing: "recent costs in North America have been in the range of $400-$500 CDN per square foot for a typical combination of spaces, which suggests a very rough estimate between $120 and $170 million CDN for construction of a 300,000- 340,000-square-foot facility, exclusive of design, furnishings and equipment costs."

How exactly this is a trade secret? Any number of trade publications report the same information on a regular basis, so it appears the censor wanted to keep the information not from potential competitors, who would surely already have the info, but from us, the public, in order to keep us from having informed debate about the convention centre proposal. (After we reported the redaction failure, the online redacted Criterion report became un-redacted.)

This incident is once again proof that Nova Scotian governments and crown corporations have a culture of secrecy and consider government information the private property of bureaucrats. I don't know how else to say it: They hate democracy.

With yet another example of government secrecy run amok, on top of MLA spending scandals, P3 scandals, hidden $600,000 expenditures for Paul McCartney and who knows what other chicanery, it's a wonder that anyone at all would trust the bullshitters and backslappers who run this circus with the $100 million the convention centre will supposedly cost us. (I guarantee you that figure will go up.)

But, amazingly, there are still plenty of convention centre supporters, and they point at the reports to argue their case.

To be sure, the four reports are internally consistent, and they make the case for a new convention centre. But they rely entirely on information provided by Trade Centre Limited.

Which brings us back to the Deloitte report, which was censored by someone with slightly more knowledge than that provided by an Idiot's Guide to Censoring book---the copy and paste trick didn't work in this case. The censored table lists $6.5 million in "lost business" for the existing World Trade and Convention Centre---60 groups that were going to bring 75,955 delegates to Halifax. But the group names are censored, so we have no way of verifying the information---we're supposed to take Trade Centre Limited's word for it.

But like the construction cost info, this is hardly a trade secret, and making the names public would hurt no one at all.

Again, I simply don't believe TCL. I think they're lying, or at least stretching the truth: I'm guessing that any group that made a single call asking for information and didn't subsequently book a convention was considered "lost business," and used to inflate the case for a new convention centre.

It's not like this group of clowns has a good track record for being forthright. Why should we trust them?

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