This is what ‘access’ looks like now

Russell Wangersky
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It will only get worse

Photos by Keith Gosse/The Telegram

Examples. By now, if the provincial government really had a cogent reason for changing its access to information laws, we should be hearing scores of examples from cabinet ministers where the old act was falling down.

At least, that’s the way it would work if there was actually clear and defensible policy for changing the law.

Because there are examples of the problems with that act, and they are not pretty.

Ask for something simple, like proposals from the College of the North Atlantic for infrastructure improvements at the Stephenville campus of the College of the North Atlantic — as the NDP did — and you’ll get something like the six pages shown here.

Many things are already withheld as cabinet secrets, but the government claims it needs to extend cabinet secrecy even further.

The example shown above is not unusual: anyone who frequently uses the current act knows that easily 50 per cent of the time, you get blacked out pages — often for the entire request.

And to add insult to injury — if you’re in the media — you get to pay photocopying and search charges to have copies of your own stories sent back to you as the only information in government records that you’re allowed to have.

Of course, you don’t know that until you’ve paid the bill — you can almost hear the government employees giggling as they tape the envelopes closed.

There are plenty of examples of problems with the existing legislation. The problem is, they don’t support making the legislation tougher.

Show us the problems

You’d think the province would now be trotting its examples out hand over fist — if, that is, the problems actually do exist.

In the past, the government has done that — with decidedly mixed results.

Under Danny Williams, one example that was used is that someone sent in an access to information request asking Williams’ office to produce copies of all his public speeches. The request was described as a massive time-waster for already hugely busy Williams staffers. The example showed a critical problem with the law — but not the one the government thought it was highlighting. They wanted to use the request as an example of a frivolous use of the act, because staffers would have to pore through scores of speeches.

But there has to be something wrong with an access law that it would require speeches already given in public — and often already reported on in the media — to be vetted, word for word, to ensure that releasing their contents didn’t violate the access to information act. The mind boggles.

If something has already been released publicly, then, well, why force it through the access to information sieve all over again? The fix, clearly, is not in blocking the access as “frivolous” — it’s in simply releasing the speeches.

The Dunderdale government has tried to trot out examples for the changes it proposes, but those have often blown up in the faces of the ministers who offered them up. When the proposed changes to the legislation were first outlined, Justice Minister Felix Collins complained that “thousands” of requests were blocking up the system: in fact, across all of the government — all of its departments, bodies, agencies and public bodies like municipal councils, some 500 bodies in all — there are fewer than 600 requests under the act per year.

Collins was asked directly to provide examples where cabinet confidences leaked out as a result of the old act — he could not come up with a single instance.

He was asked at the same news conference to give an example of the kind of frivolous request cabinet ministers will now be able to ignore out of hand — once again, he could not come up with a single example. Not one.

He’s since brought up a couple of examples in the House of Assembly, but truth be told, they’ve been lame examples of people who clearly didn’t understand how the act worked.

He isn’t the only minister whose attempts to justify the changes have failed.

Government Services Minister Paul Davis complained, for example, about a request from the CBC for restaurant inspections: “(CBC) asked for all restaurant inspections for the month of January and February. … All restaurant inspections. Now, Mr. Speaker, I can tell you that in our province, there are over 6,000 establishments that have food establishment licences. Over 6,000.”

That may be true.  But many provinces put exactly that information up online for free — they consider it something the public has a right to know. Other jurisdictions make restaurants post their health reports in their front windows.

There’s another reason it’s a poor example: how can Davis possibly argue you shouldn’t know if there are public health concerns at a restaurant where you were planning to eat? Because it’s too difficult? Really?

But the circular logic doesn’t end there.

Take the fact that only 10 people from the public showed up at hearings into changes to the legislation.

Here’s Minister Collins: “The hon. member makes reference to the fact that the public should have a chance here to examine this bill. Mr. Speaker, in eight hearings around the province, 10 people showed up. The public is very happy, Mr. Speaker, with the way we conduct our affairs in this province, as is evidenced by the numbers that showed up.”

You’d think, by that argument, there would be no need to change the legislation that the public is so very happy with.

But still, there are changes to be made. Plenty of changes, solving problems that the government can’t even demonstrate actually exist. And in the absence of the problems, what is the government tightening up, and for whom?

If the changes are not being made for the happy public, who are they being made for? Public servants?

And if that’s the case, who’s serving whom?

Access to information is ugly now: it has become a law whose primary use is to justify withholding information, not releasing it.

Sadly, there are many, many black-inked examples of exactly that. And now, there will be even more.

Russell Wangersky is the editorial page editor of The Telegram. He can be reached by email at

Organizations: College of the North Atlantic, NDP, CBC The Telegram

Geographic location: Stephenville

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Recent comments

  • ECK
    June 16, 2012 - 16:11

    This is a great article and very true. In a democracy, we rely on the government to open its books to us, and to be accountable to its citizens. When the government is finding ways to operate in secrecy, it is a very bad sign for democracy.

  • Robin Hood
    June 15, 2012 - 15:21

    Here in this province we continue to give our resourses away.. while plants close.. two paper mills closed and possibly the last one... the only secondary processing plant in the province scheduled to close the end of the year.... the Rescue center closed... as one person recently put it this government will only listen to people it Suits not Boots.... now they want things More secretive.... no transparancy... governments who treat people like this should be short lived.

  • Terry
    June 15, 2012 - 14:52

    What has been ignored here is the recommendations outlined in the report reflect the changes that people submitted during consultation. People got what they wanted and asked for but they're still not happy. The low turnout showed how much of a concern this really was to people at the time. Now everyone is in a tizzy because they think government is shutting down access, whereas the only real people this will affect is media and opposition parties.

  • jeff
    June 15, 2012 - 13:59

    It will be a long time before I or anyone else I know ever vote PC again. I have been Pc for years and years. Never again, or at least at the very least under Kathy's rule, she has to go and we need a thorough investigation as to all her expenses and where every cent went. She and her cronies obviously has something to hide. They have been proving it over and over again. We need her gone and a FULL investigation. ASAP before she bankrupts NL and before she disappears with the millions she has robbed!!!! (and never forget all her buddies in cabinet, they are doing the same, you can bet on that. Nalcor is making more than one of them millionaires!!)

  • Frank M
    June 15, 2012 - 13:45

    The irony is this entire debate is that Premier Dunderdale lacks the formal education, experience and judgement, that would qualify her as someone with the ability to determine what NLers can or cannot understand. This legislation by our government is an embarasment for the residents of Newfoundland and Labrador. Regrettably, it also reinforces the incorrect mainland stereotype of the Stupid Newfie. But you can't put that into a tourism advert. "Go To Newfoundland and Labrador Where the People Cannot Think for Themselves By Government Decree".

  • Brian II
    June 15, 2012 - 12:01

    This is getting ridiculous. How did we go from being goverened by a shrew, intelligent person like Danny Williams, who almost everyone admired to being led down the Garden Path by Kathy Dunderdale and her bunch of spineless morons. Not one person in the PC party had the guts, courage, will or whatever to take on the job of Premier and Kathy got put in almost by accident. She has done nothing right since being elected in my opinion. She is destroying what progress Danny made. It embarrassing to watch her on TV answering questions from reporters. She seems so flustered, nervous, angry and out of place its difficult to watch. The PC's will never get re-elected if the oposition parties can offer a credible alternative. She always seems so defensive. She ought to know by now that everything is questionable and we the people have the right to ask questions of the government either by MHA or reporter. What will be next in the PC's quest to destroy themselves.

    • Robert
      June 15, 2012 - 14:43

      Brian II, voters like you are exactly the reason that we are suffering under this kind of 'leadership'. Dunderdale has the same number of votes in the house as your MHA. If your MHA belongs th her party, you're getting what you voted for. If NL voters elected politicians with integrity, wisdom, and principles, we would have a much better government, Instead, what we have are a bunch of opportunists who's only qualifying merit is having the right colour on their campaign sign.

    • W McLean
      June 15, 2012 - 17:46

      Danny Williams a shrew? You got that right. How do you think we got started down the path of secrecy, paranoia, and a retreat from transparency? It was Danny. What progress did Danny make on the accountability front? NONE. It was his government that frustrated ATIP requests, kept "purple files", denied the existence of emails, and on and on it goes. Danny is not the hero of this piece. He is the villain. OPEN YOUR EYES.

  • Anna
    June 15, 2012 - 11:54

    I found it very sad that not one conservative would vote against Bill 29. I have always voted conservative, federal and provinical but I will never vote conservative again. Excellent article Russell.

  • What's Next Danny Williams
    June 15, 2012 - 11:13

    What can Kathy Dunderdale and her cronies possibly do next to degrade our people? We are too ignorant to understand information. The next step will be obligating us for generations to a hydro project that is not economically feasible. Thank you Danny Williams - you put her there. Enjoy the pucks and the bunnies.

  • Karen
    June 15, 2012 - 11:13

    Thanks Russell for the article. I think this bill is a way for the government to hide all the millions they intent to spend on the muscrat falls project that they don't want us to know the whole story. Dundedale wants to go down in history being the Premier that made Musgrat Falls happen and she will do anything to make that happen. There are millions of dollars already being spent to make this deal happen and nothing is going to stop Dunderdale now. They complained about Joey for years and the mistakes that he made with Churchill Falls. We are going to be brought back to the 40's like one reader already stated. Thanks to all the NDP and LIberals for trying to stop this bill.

  • Rick
    June 15, 2012 - 10:37

    Mr. Wangersky, a very pointed and necessary editorial. Well done. The sudden Harperesque approach to governance cements Premier Dunderdale's blatant morphing from "progressive" to the "regressives" Conservative. The timing to deny public access to provincial information may offer cover to the provincial input and agreement with the Canada-EU Free Trade deal which Mr. Harper plans to sign before the end of 2012. Her government's input to the Canada-EU deal, among other things, will gut the inshore fishery, and in particular kill all remaining fish processing in NL. She will shrug about it and about the impact of the deal on municipal and provincial contracts, not to mention the interruption of the NLPC touted gains on generic drugs. We have seen nothing yet and we will see less with the present PC players.

  • Brad Cabana
    June 15, 2012 - 10:26

    Its hard to watch the province being dragged back to the 1940's type mentality that : "we know best, and you only need to know what we tell you." It hard to watch the free media being denied the opportunity to really research what is going on without being handcuffed by those that they are supposed to be scrutinizing. Same goes for the Opposition. Newfoundlanders and Labradorians have to ask themselves:"Are we prepared to allow this to happen to us?" The government is banking on yes. Those of us that love freedom are praying no.Time will tell, but remember this going ahead to Muskrat Falls, and it's financing.

    • David
      June 15, 2012 - 10:40

      Dragged back? We never left.

  • Dave
    June 15, 2012 - 09:46

    In true Orwellian fashion, they should rename Bill 29 - "The Freedom FROM Information Act."

  • Brian
    June 15, 2012 - 09:33

    With all the polls done by the media over the past week the majority of responders opposed this bill, this government is about to do something and we will never be able to get the full details, stinks!!!!! They must think we are all dummies. We are not and Minister Collins & Davis are the DUMMIES, they should sit and review their own comments , oh how awfull they look and people voted for them???

  • RP
    June 15, 2012 - 09:30

    I agree with the changes to Bill 29 and view them as reasonable.

    • joe
      June 15, 2012 - 12:23

      You sound like a talking parrrot.

    • Kent
      July 02, 2012 - 21:04

      And what exactly are you hiding from!? Lol

  • David
    June 15, 2012 - 09:16

    Repeat after me: We get the governent we deserve. Newfoundlanders pay incredibly close attention to every litlte 'pin drop' in politics, but for no reason other than boredom. We had little access to information before now, we'll have even less afterwards....and the sun will come up on Newfoundland tomorrow. We'll all go back to being as blissfully ignorant of government shenaigans and corruption as we are now, albeit in an oddly ultra-attentive way.

  • Don II
    June 15, 2012 - 08:31

    As usual, Russell Wangersky has summed it up just right. The passage of Bill 29 is the desperate act of an incompetent and corrupt Government with a lot of issues that it wants to hide and cover up from public scrutiny. The passage of Bill 29 is a very serious blow to democracy and an unjustified obstruction of the people's right to know what their Government is doing behind closed doors. The Government of Newfoundland has refused to pass a Whistleblower Act to protect public servants who reveal waste, incompetence and corruption inside the Government. The Government of Newfoundland once stated that it would provide more open, transparent and honest access to information on Government operations. Clearly, the Government of Newfoundland has no intention of ever doing that. Hopefully, in the future, when this Government is removed from office, a new Government will repeal Bill 29, pass Whistleblower laws and pass more open Access to Information laws. It appears that Bill 29 is the Dunderdale Governments plan to stop the release of information regarding the proposed Muskrat Falls hydro electric project in Labrador and to cover up all other questionable activities currently going on inside the Government of Newfoundland. From this day forward, the Province of Newfoundland and Labrador should be officially considered to be no better than a third world tin pot dictatorship!

  • Sean Flynn
    June 15, 2012 - 08:26

    I think the government is banking on the people of NL being too ignorant of the importance of an open bureaucracy to make this an election issue. I really hope we prove them wrong.

  • Paul
    June 15, 2012 - 08:23

    Excellent article Russell. When I read about this coming out of the blue couldn't believe it. I voted conservative the last three elections, but if they do not repeal this arrogant piece of legislation they will not get it next time. They didn't bring in whistleblower legislation as promised and now they have restricted access to even more info. I cannot support a government that blatently tries to hide from the people. It is undemocratic.

  • William Daniels
    June 15, 2012 - 08:16

    I agree with every word.

  • Kurt Sullivan
    June 15, 2012 - 08:12

    On the point of the restaurant reviews, I would also assume that not all 6000+ food establishments were reviewed in January and February. I stand to be corrected though.

    • Dwayne Cull
      June 15, 2012 - 08:32

      You're right....Inspections are periodic, but they can conduct surprise inspections...I suspect most restaurants are inspected ANY MORE than twice a the math on that

  • Sally
    June 15, 2012 - 08:08

    I suspect the reason for low turnout at the public meetings was a belief in the futility of participating and offering any comments. Any suggestions counter to the government's plan would fall on deaf ears. The government has effectively defeated the public voice - rendered us mute. Now they are imposing silence.

  • Tina
    June 15, 2012 - 07:52

    This government makes me sick. I didn't vote for them in the last election and I hope that people won't forget this in the next election. Is there anyway we can get this government out of power legally?

  • Joe it all
    June 15, 2012 - 07:51

    Your story contains the following piece: Government Services Minister Paul Davis complained, for example, about a request from the CBC for restaurant inspections: “(CBC) asked for all restaurant inspections for the month of January and February. … All restaurant inspections. Now, Mr. Speaker, I can tell you that in our province, there are over 6,000 establishments that have food establishment licences. Over 6,000.” What the hell does that have to do with the number of actual inspections? There may have only been 50 or a hundred or maybe there was a thousand? I guess we will never know!!

    • Brad
      June 15, 2012 - 10:55

      Reading the article, I was wondering the same thing. Just because there are 6000 licences, doesn't mean each and every one of those restaurants are inspected every month of the year. I used to work in a restaurant in St. John's, I worked there about 5 years, and we only saw a health inspector once per year, at the most twice per year (and the health inspector was there 5 minutes tops; most likely because there are probably too few health inspectors to do quality work with the current number of establishments in existence). Just goes to show how the Conservatives twist information to try to suit their own purposes and to try to justify unnecessary changes to the current legislation. (Just to be fair, I'm not saying the Liberals or the NDP are any better, I'm just pointing out something about the Conservatives at the moment; I think all the political parties have equally bad qualities.)

  • Dave
    June 15, 2012 - 07:48

    This governmemt is repressive and insulting. Russell makes excellent points and the current government simply cannot defend Bill 29. They clearly want to keep something under wraps. We, the people of this fine province, have the right to know our government's business. Put it on hold and hold other public meetings about it. However, public meetings won't matter to this government. They'll still try to push this one through anyway. The idea of government transparency here is a joke....I'm pretty sure some past Soviet (and other repressive) leaders would be very impressed!

  • s parsons
    June 15, 2012 - 07:25

    funny how it takes just one utterly ridiculous self-serving decision (bill 29) to change one from a being a supporter to running to the other side. Just a single decision that speaks volumes about the intelligence, honesty and integrity of the government leader and her lemmings.

    • Robert
      June 15, 2012 - 08:50

      I find it amazing that so many kept their heads buried in the sand while the many other ridiculous self-serving decisions were made. Maybe this was the hammer over the head that the electorate needed to see this government for what they are. Then again, maybe they'll be stunned enough to return the clown troupe to office. People get the government they deserve.

  • prufock
    June 15, 2012 - 07:15

    I guess we'll soon have to rely on Wikileaks.

  • Kent
    June 15, 2012 - 07:06

    They should re-name the procedure to "Access to no information request"..

  • grace
    June 15, 2012 - 07:06

    Excellent points Russell. I thoroughly disagree with the changes being made by the provincial government. They are abusing their majority rule and I hope voters will let them know their displeasure in the next election.