Allegations of racism and a dramatic midnight shouting match on the floor of the House of Assembly shut down debate on the province’s proposed access to information legislation.
New Democratic Party Leader Lorraine Michael accused Justice Minister Felix Collins of making racist comments towards Uganda, Mexico and other developing countries.
The blowup capped off an intense three-day filibuster of the Dunderdale government’s proposed access to information legislation, which opposition parties say will shut down the public’s right to see vast swaths of government documents.
“This is beyond access to information bill. When we have those kinds of allegations made in the House of Assembly, that’s something that simply cannot be tolerated,” Government House Leader Jerome Kennedy told The Telegram moments after he shut down debate on the bill. “When the comments are made by the leader of party that the Minister of Justice is racist, it’s time to stop.”
The evening session was dominated by discussion about a report on the CBC that the new access to information legislation would make our province’s law weaker than many developing countries including Uganda and Mexico.
Shortly before midnight, Collins gave a speech defending the legislation and saying it was offensive to compare Newfoundland to those countries.
Collins said he resents the notion of “our pine clad hills” were being compared to Mexico, Uganda and other “Third World” countries.
New Democrat Leader Lorraine Michael was livid when she got to her feet in reply.
“I cannot believe we are sitting in a legislature where we have actually seen the essence of — and I’m going to say it — racism,” Michael said in the House.
Moments later, Kennedy was on his feet, arguing that Michael accusing Collins of racism amounted to unparliamentary language, and it should not be allowed.
Committee chair Wade Verge was forced to review the tape of the House of Assembly, and ruled that it was, in fact unparliamentary.
Verge forced Michael to apologize and withdraw her comment.
Outside the House, though, she said she still believed that the comments Collins made were offensive.
“Last week we had a delegation from Uganda including the high commissioner in Canada from Uganda here in our House of Assembly,” she said. “My question is, Minister Collins, would you have made those statements about Uganda last week when the delegation was here?”
Michael said that Kennedy was just using her outburst as an excuse to stifle debate.
“I think it was an excuse; I think he was looking for an excuse and he used what happened as an excuse,” she said.
Liberal Leader Dwight Ball was in the House through the whole thing. He wouldn’t say Collins’ speech was racist, but he said it was close.
“It was certainly testy,” he said. “I think it was on the edge.”
Ball, and the Liberal caucus, was outraged that the government was shutting down debate on the access to ifnormation bill.
“The debate got to a different level tonight, but not one that I saw would bring this debate to closure,” he said.
The House will sit tomorrow to debate the closure resolution which will take several hours, but by the end of the day, the government will be able to force the legislation through.
Until midnight, it looked like the opposition was on track to push through with a record-breaking filibuster of the legislation.
MHAs had been debating a single clause of the bill for more than 24 hours, and had been going virtually nonstop since Monday afternoon.
The amendments to the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act effectively shut down public access to broad categories of government documents.
The clause MHAs spent more than 24 hours debating would expand the reach of cabinet secrecy to include any document that had been prepared for a cabinet meeting, even if had never actually been used in deliberations.
Canadian Association of Journalists president Hugo Rodrigues said he was “shocked” when he heard about the scope of the new law.
He said that the legislation is getting a certain amount of national attention, as people who use access to information provision in other provinces take notice.
Rodrigues said he worries that sweeping provisions in Newfoundland and Labrador could be used to trigger similar changes elsewhere, in a race to the bottom.
“There’s always that concern that if a particular legislature is able to get some new measures through in one part of the country, that the other legislatures are going to start looking,” Rodrigues said. “In the engaged communities, I’m sure there is an increasing level of coast-to-coast awareness of what’s on the floor of the House of Assembly in St. John’s right now.”
New Democrat MHA George Murphy was more blunt in his appraisal.
“This is a very fascist type bill here, I think,” he said. “It’s very low-minded.”