Health Minister Susan Sullivan. Telegram photo.
Bill 42 passed through the House of Assembly this week without much fanfare, but critics say it will reduce government transparency and oversight even as it ostensibly makes more information easily available to the public.
The law, "an act to amend various acts of the province respecting annual reports" requires 16 different medical regulatory bodies to submit annual reports to the provincial government so they can be posted online.
"What we're trying to do here is ensure that the public has as much access as we can provide," Health Minister Susan Sullivan said. "For us, this is about making access easier for the people of the province."
But at the same time, the legislation removes a requirement that was on the books for five of those bodies to submit their annual reports and financial statements to be tabled in the House of Assembly.
This was enough of an issue for independent MHA Tom Osborne that he submitted an amendment trying to get that part of the legislation removed. It was shot down by the House.
He said that when things are tabled in the House, every MHA gets a copy and it serves to give everyone a heads-up about the issue.
"Now the minister and government are leaving the onus upon opposition members to constantly monitor board websites and the health and community services website to find out when a report is going to be released, with no notification to the House of Assembly that a report has been released," Osborne said. "The irony of it is that it creates accessibility to the general public because the reports are now on the website, but unless you happen to check the website every day to find out if there's a report tabled today, there's no notification."
New Democrat MHA Gerry Rogers had the same concern.
"It's problematic in my view in that they're not formally being tabled in the House of Assembly," she said. "It's not enough that they have done them and they're on some website. There needs to be a formal notification."
Both Osborne and Rogers mentioned Bill 29, the legislative amendments to the province's access to information law passed in the spring, which greatly increased the types of documents that can be kept secret from the public.
"One can't help but keep going back to the current climate that we're in where it's harder to get information," Rogers said.
Liberal MHA Andrew Parsons said from his perspective, it's not a massive difference where the information gets stored, as long as people can get their hands on it when they want it.
"For me - for it being tabled in the House and every person gets a copy of this report, where a lot of them end up in the trash bin - that seems to be a waste of resources," he said.
"Is somebody going to be able to easily access this information down the road if they so choose to? As long as that's maintained, and if it's in one spot or another, I'm not going to say that I think it's a huge issue of where it's stored."
In the news release issued trumpeting the improvements of Bill 42, Keith Hutchings, the minister responsible for access to information, said the government is trying to do as much as it can on "proactive disclosure" - making government documents easily available so people don't have to file formal access to information requests.
Hutchings talked about the same thing earlier this week during a news conference to announce the government was putting restaurant inspection reports online for public viewing.
At that time, Hutchings said he was talking to all departments to get more suggestions for types of documents that are frequently requested, so the government can do more of that sort of routine disclosure.
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