© — Telegram file photo
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.”