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 email@example.com.