Liberal House Leader Andrew Parsons introduced a motion to be debated on Wednesday that was pretty simple: “Be it resolved that this Honourable House of Assembly urge Government to immediately repeal Bill 29.” You might remember that, a little while back, I specifically asked people to stop doing that, and explained in excruciating detail why I feel that way. Oh well, Parsons has a different opinion, and that’s cool.
Anyway, Wednesday afternoon’s debate is a good reason to talk a bit more about access to information and Bill 29, so let’s dive into it.
Right off the bat, let’s get this out of the way: I don’t cover private member’s day because usually it seems like a complete and utter waste of time. Essentially, on Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays the legislature debates normal stuff like budgets and laws and stuff. Y’know... legislature stuff. But on Wednesdays, they shorten the day by an hour and instead they debate a non-binding resolution that usually amounts to a glorified set of party talking points. Case in point: on March 26, after the government announced increased oversight of the Muskrat Falls project, Corner Brook MHA Vaughn Granter introduced this gem for debate: “THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED that this Honourable House supports the government’s actions to provide greater oversight of the Muskrat Falls project.” You can read the thing in its entirety, including the parade of “Whereas” clauses at the top, over here on the day’s order paper. The week before, in the wake of the January blackouts and calls for better energy-efficiency programs from the Liberals, the Liberals introduced this chestnut: “THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED that this House urge government to consider developing and introducing energy conservation programs for all ratepayers in our province.” Tom Osborne, who introduced it, only gave us two “Whereas” clauses, but you can read ’em both here. After a bunch of speechifying over a resolution that has no legal power, the House votes at the end of the day and then everybody leaves and goes home. The April 2nd resolution — no “Whereas” clauses at all! — is essentially the same thing. The steady drumbeat from the Liberals for months has been “repeal Bill 29,” so why not use private member’s day to keep the message going? It’s worth noting at this juncture that it’s not possible, as such, to repeal Bill 29. After I wrote my last Bill 29 blog post, a legislative aficionado, for whom I have a great deal of respect, emailed me explaining the problem with just demanding that the government repeal Bill 29. For starters, there’s the ambiguity in Parsons’ resolution: which Bill 29 does he want to repeal? This one? Or this one? I hope he doesn’t want to repeal this one.
And, anyway, none of those bills still exist. A bill is a proposal to the legislature that gets debated and passed. Once it receives royal assent, the law of the land is changed and the bill ceases to exist. What the Liberals are really asking for — and yes, I know this is pedantic, but whatever — is for the government to repeal the provisions enacted by the Bill 29 of the first session of the 47th General Assembly of Newfoundland and Labrador. Provisions of an act can be repealed, but a bill cannot be repealed.
But let’s set that aside for a moment. I caught up with Parsons after the debate and asked him a bit about the resolution. Essentially, the Liberal argument goes that you should go back to a clean pre-Bill 29 slate before you look at how to reform and rejig the access to information system. The Liberals acknowledge that there’s a solid panel of people reviewing the ATIPPA legislation right now, but instead of forcing them to clean up the Bill 29 mess, why not just let them study the old access to information law and figure out how to make it stronger and better?
There’s another reason, Parsons said, why the Liberals are relentlessly pushing for a full repeal of Bill 29. The review panel is solid, but he said he doesn’t trust the Tories once the review is done. “This government, as they said (Wednesday), said they’ll release the recommendations, but there’s been absolutely no promise that they’ll implement all of them. So we don’t have any idea whether the issues that we feel are there will be taken care of.”
Flash back to 2010 when the government got bureaucrat John Cummings to review the legislation; his report and recommendations was the basis for Bill 29. But the government actually didn’t accept all of Cummings’ recommendations. When it comes to the province’s information and privacy commissioner, he’s appointed for a two-year term that the government can choose to renew. All other provinces in the country provide for five years or longer for their independent watchdogs, and Cummings wrote that the government should make the watchdog’s term “at least a five-year term.” No thank you, the government said, we’d rather keep our watchdog on a short leash.
There’s another compelling reason to get rid of Bill 29, which Parsons raised in the legislature Wednesday: the House of Assembly never actually debated most of it.
During the 2012 filibuster, debate essentially stalled on Clause 6 right up until then-government House leader Jerome Kennedy shut down debate. But Bill 29 was actually 34 clauses long. If you go to Hansard, there’s this incredibly depressing episode on the Thursday night when the whole thing came to an end.
“Shall Clause 6 carry?” the clerk asks. The Tories vote “aye” and the Liberals and NDP vote “nay.”
Then, the clerk asks, “Shall clauses 7 through 34 inclusive carry?” Again, the Tories vote “aye” — and that’s how the vast majority of Bill 29 got passed without actually getting debated in the legislature.
“They rammed this through,” Parsons said. “We all know that we never got to debate the entire bill.”
Lastly, there’s the curious case of Paul Lane. I went back to the tape of the speech he gave on Jan. 20, when he jumped ship from the Tories and joined up with the Liberals. One of the major reasons he gave for making the move was “the infamous Bill 29.” But even though he was leaving the PC party because of Bill 29, Lane was at pains to make it clear that he didn’t think the legislation was all bad. “While I believe that there are many good, and many necessary amendments contained within Bill 29, the issue around cabinet documentation was, in my view, a mistake and it should be reversed.” That didn’t stop Lane from voting to repeal those “many good, and many necessary” provisions within Bill 29.
When I got Lane on the phone on Friday, he said, “My position on Bill 29 hasn’t changed a bit,” but he said there’s no contradiction between wanting to repeal Bill 29, and also seeing good aspects within the bill. He said, essentially, that the Liberals would clear the decks and then come up with a new and improved suite of amendments to the access to information legislation, after the Bill 29 exorcism.
“The overriding factor here with Bill 29 is really about restoring confidence and trust with government in Newfoundland and Labrador,” he said. “By taking this approach of simply starting fresh and doing proper consultations with all the people of Newfoundland and Labrador, then the final product will be something I believe that will put safeguards in place that are required, while at the same time providing all the necessary information to the people, to the media and all the other stakeholders who require it.”
And as for all of those “many good and many necessary” parts of Bill 29 that’d get repealed?
Lane said, “Well, put it this way: we got by for years without Bill 29, didn’t we?”