After a gruelling four days of debate in the House of Assembly, the government shut down debate in the wee hours
this morning, and forced through am-endments to the province’s access to information legislation.
Since Monday afternoon politicians have debated amendments to the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act, a record-breaking debate that lasted more than 60 hours.
But the last day of debate was dogged by accusations of racism in the House of Assembly.
Government House leader Jerome Kennedy moved to shut down debate Thursday evening by bringing in a closure motion.
The bill will expand the realm of cabinet secrecy to include any documents prepared for ministers’ deliberations — even if they’re never actually used to make cabinet decisions.
The legislation will also allow cabinet ministers to dismiss access to information they deem to be “frivolous or vexatious” or anything they consider to be “trivial.”
In the course of debate, opposition parties accused the government of drafting a law that allows them to refuse essentially any government document that they don’t want to release.
Thursday evening’s debate began with an ongoing side-controversy about allegations of racism in the House of Assembly.
During the course of late-night debate Wednesday, Justice Minister Felix Collins blasted the CBC for comparing the province to Uganda, Mexico and Bulgaria. According to the Centre for Law and Democracy, the government’s proposed law would make information less accessible than many developing countries.
“To equate the province of Newfoundland, our pine clad hills that we love, behind countries such as Mexico, Ethiopia, Nicaragua, Bulgaria, Uganda, Moldova and Guatamala, countries where every day people kill women and children, where human rights atrocities are happening all the time,” Collins said Wednesday night. “We have a charter of rights and freedoms. I don’t know about Ethiopia. I don’t know if they have a charter in Uganda or Nigeria.”
New Democrat Leader Lorraine Michael said his comments smacked of racism. Michael was forced to apologize, as the comment was deemed to be “unparliamentary,” but speaking to reporters, she didn’t back down.
“I still have my understanding of what systemic racism is, and I hope that it has helped that I’ve said this,”she said.
Michael Karanicolas, Legal Officer for Centre for Law and Democracy took umbrage at Collins’ comments as well, and sent an open letter to him, urging him to withdraw Bill 29.
“In response to your remarks about the Charter, and the state of human rights in the developing world, I would point out that many of the countries you cited do, in fact, have their own equivalents of Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms,” Karanicolas wrote. “ I would draw your attention to the constitutions of Mexico, Ethiopia, Uganda and Bulgaria, all of whom recognize access to information as a human right, and all of whom have stronger access to information frameworks than Newfoundland’s will, if Bill 29 passes.”
Speaker Ross Wiseman will deliver a ruling next week on whether to censure Michael; Government House Leader Jerome Kennedy argued that the comments were a breach of parliamentary rules.
Kennedy told The Telegram that ultimately, the racism comments were a signal that debate had descended to a point where it just needed to stop.
“It was the right thing to do,” he said. “It was pretty continuous debate. The opposition members certainly had their opportunity to debate the bill and they did so vigorously.”
Liberal Leader Dwight Ball dismissed that, saying that Kennedy was just using the racism issue as a distraction.
“We just see thing really as a diversion tactic to just bring closure to this bill,” he said.
Shortly after 11 p.m., Michael wrapped up her final speech discussing the legislation, and she noted the one silver lining was that the four-day filibuster has aroused public reaction.
The legislation and the filibuster have drawn national attention, and on Thursday night, there were 30 people sitting in the public galleries at one point.
“People are interested in this,” Michael said. “We have been able to make public how weak this bill is.”