Democracy Watch slams government’s stance on cabinet directives

James McLeod
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Premier Kathy Dunderdale

An open-government watchdog is calling the Newfoundland and Labrador government’s stance when it comes to official cabinet orders “dangerously undemocratic.”

Tyler Sommers, co-ordinator with Democracy Watch, said he’s not aware of any province that’s as secretive as Newfoundland and Labrador when it comes to government orders in council.

“All other provinces and the federal government do seem to have searchable registries where you can look through and gather information, so it seems like Newfoundland is behind the pack in that area,” Sommers said in an interview with The Telegram.

Orders in council are an extremely powerful class of government documents. They reflect the formal decisions of cabinet, and they receive royal assent from the lieutenant governor.

Orders are used to spend money outside of the normal budget process, hire and fire senior civil servants, appoint people to various boards and committees, and alter the regulations tied to pieces of legislation.

Orders in council have a legal force that’s almost equivalent to a piece of legislation.

Unlike every other province in Canada, the Newfoundland and Labrador government does not provide any online information to indicate that orders in council are publicly available documents, or how a regular citizen would go about obtaining copies.

The Telegram has requested copies of orders in council, and in at least eight cases, the orders were partially or fully blacked out by government censors, based on the rules laid out in the government’s Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act.

But when it comes to withholding information based on protecting peoples’ privacy or because it would be harmful to the financial interest of a company, Sommers said across the country those justifications are overused by governments.

“Without a doubt, yes, it’s overused. At the core of all of our open government systems is the fact that in a democratic society, people need access to government information, and people deserve access to government information,” he said. “All government information should default to being publicly available, and the only information that should be withheld is information where there’s a legitimate privacy or security concern.”

Sommers said that even though most people don’t read orders in council and similarly obscure government documents, access to that kind of information is important to the healthy functioning of a democratic government.

“We have elected representatives who are supposed to make decisions on behalf of voters, and in order for voters to know whether or not they’re doing that, whether or not they’re making the decisions that voters want them to make, we need access to as much information as possible,” he said. “This is one avenue people can get information, and one avenue where it’s being restricted, which is dangerously undemocratic.”

Twitter: TelegramJames

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Recent comments

  • Doug
    March 10, 2013 - 08:36

    For too long the voters of Newfoundland have voted for the party - Conservative or Liberal. It doesn't matter who is running the party or who is running each district, Newfoundlander vote for the party name instead of becoming informed and making the best vote at election time. Others votes for the candidates that have the biggest or the most Election signs. People have to become informed, get involved and care enough to vote.

  • coco
    March 10, 2013 - 07:04

    Everyone knows about The Secrecy Act and severely restricted Auditor General but it would also be interesting to know if our government has a Code of Ethics or Conflict of Interest Laws. For an example, Google: Collingwood Town Officials Face OPP Probe.

  • Justin Brake
    March 09, 2013 - 22:38

    James, thanks for writing this piece. Can you summarize for us those eight Orders in Council requests The Telegram filed and explain what the reporter(s) was/were looking for?

  • Darren
    March 09, 2013 - 15:07

    Time for the Liberals and NDP to do another poll......right now please. By the way, phone me and I'm ABC.

  • tom
    March 09, 2013 - 14:52

    And the label of dumb Newfies continues to hold water. We elected these idiots.

  • In pursuit of social justice
    March 09, 2013 - 14:19

    I, like many others, do not like the arrogance of this govn...... in power too long! If only the provincial liberals could lure a charismatic leader to their party. If and when the liberals do, it will be bye bye pCs. Oh by the way, if Justin Trudeau wins the federal liberal will be bye bye federal pCs as well!

    • coco
      March 10, 2013 - 08:22

      We had a “charismatic leader” for about 8 of the last 10 years but our Oil Rich province is now in the deepest hole ever with the biggest loan in history. Flashy or not, a narcissistic person at the helm is only going to manage our public funds to suit their own self-interests. Incidentally, I will vote for a trained chimp if that’s the only alternative to a PC in the next election. Between the other parties, they got almost as many votes as the PC’s in 2011. However, what’s really shocking is that there were more people who did NOT vote at all than there were votes for the PC’s! Is there a connection between not voting and the loss of our democracy? A lot of people in our federal party are Reformers who joined PC’s and many people think the Libs are no different than the PC’s. If they sincerely believe they can do a better job than the PC’s, they should unite with the NDP provincially. Federally is different. The feds don’t need our vote no matter which party gets in power there.

  • JT
    March 09, 2013 - 13:43

    Hopefully the good people of this Province come to their senses and end Dunderdale and the Conservatives reign of terror on this Province. I'm with you Concerned Citizen ABC all the way baby!

  • Whaddaya At
    March 09, 2013 - 12:42

    The picture says it all. ' Let me remind the great unwashed that I am the Absolute Ruler, the Queen of this Monarchy , you betcha '. To those who have the audacity to insinuate that my Government is not transparent and unquestionably democratic, I say ' oh please!!!! '. I shall have my loyal serf and Pollmaster, Paul Lane, conduct a poll that will show I have the support of the great unwashed.

  • Frank
    March 09, 2013 - 12:41

    Not much open democracy in the Port de grave district since we put in a PC for the first time last election. Glenn 'what's he's face' is singing a different tune these days. This PC try hasn't been working for us so no question we'll get a better liberal to run next time and put our district back where it belongs.

  • Rick
    March 09, 2013 - 12:27

    All this secrecy wouldn't be happening if the government members didn't have something to keep secret that affects them in some personal way.

  • Danny
    March 09, 2013 - 11:39

    Communism should be embraced not frowned on " All Hail Danny"

  • concerned citizen
    March 09, 2013 - 10:55

    Another reason to vote ABC next election!!

    • Steve
      March 09, 2013 - 14:55

      It comes down to the terrible attitude that "you voted for me, now suffer my consequence"! All of the Dunderdale government is focused on elevating themselves to a higher sense of being. They've forgotten that WE elected them, NOT VALE, NOT EXXON, NOT EMERA. They have lost a sense of reality that the strength of Newfoundland lies with those of us that are committed to this place for the long haul, not big money in the next ten years. As a 30 something year old it worries me that the Dunderdale administration is gone in the wrong direction and going to cause further damage to our fiscal situation by driving young, bright, energetic potential employees away from the place they want to call home. As for the transparancy and disclosure in government, it's all part of thier plan, the privacy act restructuring is a part of their plan....they want you and me to play puppets, let them make the decisions to fluff up their existence and suffer in the long term. They gotta go, Newfoundlanders have to stand up and make sure that our voices are heard in the next election. We cannot let the Dunderdale administration ruin our future. They pissed away our windfall, and they're pissing away our future.

  • Will Cole
    March 09, 2013 - 10:29

    The Dunderdale Regime is insidiously usurping my democracy to suit its own secret agenda. And I don't like it, not one GD bit. This ethically-challenged Dunderdale and her poll-manipulating, democracy-thwarting Men In Black must go.

  • Graham
    March 09, 2013 - 09:24

    Open...Honest...Transparent...Three simple little words that this government cant seem to wrap its head around. Can we vote yet? Come on 2015. Time for a demonstration at Confederation building and send thi scorrupt government a clear and loud message. WE ARE SICK AND TIRED OF YOUR LIES COVERUPS CORRUPTION Personally I will NEVER vote PC again. This bunch makes me ashamed to be a Newfoundlander.

  • W Bagg
    March 09, 2013 - 09:06

    Don't bother, there is no democracy to watch in NL

  • Duffy
    March 09, 2013 - 08:50

    We are now in a Monarchy form of Government with a Queen. In a couple of years we will be able to vote to change to a Democracy.