June 12, 2012 - When Bill 29 passes, the freedom of information (FOI) process in this province will come to an end.
Justice Minister Felix Collins had the gall to say that this would “modernize” our legislation. He claims the bill is based on consultation, research and best practice across the country.
But it is none of those things. Instead, these changes effectively – if not explicitly – render the legislation null and void. It was sickening and galling to watch the minister struggle to say otherwise, at yesterday’s news conference.
“The cornerstone of the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (ATIPPA) is openness, transparency and accountability, and our government is committed to this important piece of legislation,” Collins said, with a straight face.
But we all know better. This is nothing more than a carefully contrived attempt to pull a cloak of secrecy over all aspects of government operations, and ensure that embarrassing or negative pieces of information are never exposed to public scrutiny.
For the average citizen who seldom files a freedom of information request, this may seem like a trivial matter. But it is often the biggest abuses of public trust, such as the MHA spending scandal, that are exposed through FOI requests.
That important means of exposing issues important to the public interest is gone. Bill 29 takes the access to information provisions of ATIPPA and smothers them lifeless.
Yes, you can still file a request. The window is still open. But government can look at that request, crush it into a ball and toss it in the garbage. There are now loopholes large enough to accommodate a Mack Truck.
First, there’s the “frivolous and vexatious” clause, which allows government to reject any FOI request that meets that broad criteria. I can understand the concern about “frivolous.” For example, if someone requests a copy of all emails and memos beginning with the letter T, then that is frivolous.
But vexatious? That’s a legal term for actions taken by one party against another with malicious intent. However, we are talking here about information requests – not legal action – and I wonder how government will interpret this? Perhaps they will go with the dictionary definition as well, which is any request that may “provoke irritation or anxiety.” And the easy way to avoid such anxiety – and an unfavourable poll result – is to deny the request. I wish I was joking, but I’m not. This is dead serious.
Ministerial briefing notes, another potential source of embarrassment for government, are also off the table.
And there is this clause:
“The head of a public body may refuse to disclose to an applicant information that would reveal... consultations or deliberations involving officers or employees of a public body, a minister or staff of a minister.”
Even the Auditor General has been shut out. This office, so critical to government oversight, cannot access information that is deemed official cabinet secrets. That goes beyond the pale.
The final nail in the coffin of openness and accountability is the clause that gives ministers final say in all disputes, and removes the power of the information and privacy commissioner.
In other words, all information is exempt. It’s over. Why didn't government just repeal the ATIPPA legislation, and be up front about it?
There are other limits, barriers and roadblocks that will all serve to staunch the flow of information, summarized nicely in this CBC story:
And there is an excellent critique of Bill 29 here, by Russell Wangersky of The Telegram:
Wangersky has been on top of this story for many months, and actually predicted in his Saturday column much of what is contained in Bill 29. (The reality, I expect, is even worse than he imagined.) In fact, in an interview today on Radio Noon, Russell concluded – as I have – that the freedom of information process is essentially dead in this province. Wangersky also pointed out that, with this legislation, the Dunderdale government could be even more secretive than the Harper government.
Writing on Twitter, PC MHA Paul Lane thanked Wangersky for his efforts by calling him “Wankersky,” proving that you can lead an MHA to caucus but you can’t make him think. (He repeated the misspelling of another anonymous troll. But there’s no way a media-savvy guy like Lane doesn’t know how to spell Russell’s last name.)
In another bizarre sidebar to this story, Bill 29 was the subject of the daily online poll at both VOCM and CBC.
VOCM asked “Do you think the Dunderdale government is becoming too secretive with the changes to the Information and Privacy Acts?”
When I first looked this morning, with just over a thousand votes in, about 85 percent said yes. However, by 1:30 in the afternoon, there were more than 8000 votes – far more than would normally participate – and 62 percent were saying no. Looks like somebody is goosing the poll again.
For a reality check, I clicked the CBC poll, where 1,700 people had voted. Of those, 69 percent said “I don’t agree with the changes. Access shouldn’t be restricted.” As well, almost 15 percent said “Predictable. The longer a party is in power, the more likely access will be restricted.”
In other words, about 85 percent don’t like Bill 29. Neither poll is scientific, of course, but I’ve a hunch CBC’s is much closer to the truth.
Bill 29 means we now have permission to laugh in the face of any government MHA who tries to say they are “open and accountable.” They are not. Any MHA who makes that claim is lying.
Because this government is shutting down the freedom of information process.
It’s still early in Premier Dunderdale’s mandate. With Bill 29, she is gambling that people have short memories and will forget about this come election time.
How stupid does she think we are?
I won’t forget. And I’ll do my best to make sure that you don’t either.