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How perceived info blocking has dogged Tories in N.L.

Premier Kathy Dunderdale was defiant during a recent exchange in the legislature when she touted Newfoundland and Labrador as one of Canada’s most open governments.
It’s a claim she has made repeatedly over the last 18 months after her Progressive Conservatives passed access to information changes that national accountability watchdogs called shockingly regressive.

Premier Kathy Dunderdale speaks to reporters outside the House of Assembly in this file photo. — Telegram file photo

Amendments to the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act in June 2012 blocked release of ministerial briefing notes, increased protections for cabinet records, hiked fees and allowed ministers to reject requests as “frivolous” or “vexatious.”

Accusations of secrecy have dogged the Tories ever since.

Opposition Liberal Leader Dwight Ball says his first act if he wins the next election in 2015 would be to repeal those changes and launch a full review of access to government documents. He challenged Dunderdale in the house of assembly on Nov. 18 to overturn “the most secretive bill that this house has ever seen.”

Dunderdale was unfazed. She cited a 2012 study on access to information by the Halifax-based Centre for Law and Democracy that found “we are open and transparent, far ahead of other provinces in this country ... and the federal government,” she told the legislature.

But Toby Mendel, president of the centre, said those findings are nothing to gloat about.

“To claim that Newfoundland is doing well in this area because it is in third place in Canada is reminiscent of a race to the bottom,” he said.

The centre’s report — entitled “Failing to Measure Up” — specifically rapped Newfoundland and Labrador for new restrictions “that significantly weakened its access regime.”

“To present such a major backsliding on such an important human rights and governance issue as acceptable, indeed progressive, suggests an arrogance and lack of respect for the people of Newfoundland,” Mendel said.

The report also noted that the province along with New Brunswick, the Northwest Territories, Nunavut, Nova Scotia, Saskatchewan, Yukon and the federal government only allows its information commissioner to make recommendations, not binding rulings.

“This is a critical flaw, which severely curtails the power of the oversight body to ensure compliance with the law,” it says.

Ball has also called for more public scrutiny of provincial Crown corporation Nalcor Energy, especially now that it’s overseeing the $7.7-billion Muskrat Falls hydro project in Labrador.

“A lot of money is going into Nalcor and yet, here we are, with this company that still reports once a year,” he said in an interview.

Duff Conacher, a board member of Democracy Watch, said it’s of particular concern that the provincial auditor general can’t publicly release spending reports that Nalcor itself deems to be commercially sensitive.

“That system sounds dangerously undemocratic,” he said from Ottawa. “The determination of what needs to be kept secret should always be made by a fully independent watchdog agency, not by a company who is trying to avoid disclosure.”

In an emailed response, Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Steve Kent said Nalcor will continue to release information that “doesn’t compromise its ability to obtain competitive bids.

“Nalcor will continue to provide information pertaining to its operations at its annual general meeting and will continue to file audit reports similar to those filed by private sector companies.”

It’s a “just trust us” approach and it has stoked fears that the province is rolling the dice on a massive, publicly funded project with great potential but also huge risk, said Stephen Tomblin, a political scientist at Memorial University of Newfoundland.

“There’s this kind of sense that there’s a lot of stuff that’s happening, some of it might be good, but why aren’t we debating it? Why don’t we have that data?” he said in an interview.

Dunderdale has often said Muskrat Falls is the most scrutinized project in provincial history, and that her government is releasing more information than ever before.

Information and Privacy Commissioner Ed Ring confirmed there has been no marked increase in formal complaints since the June 2012 legislation.

“The view from my office is that it has not been a significant factor in terms of access requests being up or down or indifferent.”

Ball said one noticeable difference is an increase in blacked out or redacted information.

“It’s one thing to say that you’re getting the responses back. The big thing for us is the quality of what we’re getting back.”

 

— By Sue Bailey in St. John's

Organizations: Centre, Memorial University of Newfoundland

Geographic location: Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada, New Brunswick Northwest Territories Nunavut Nova Scotia Saskatchewan Yukon Ottawa St. John's

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Recent comments

  • Ellen
    December 23, 2013 - 21:06

    So if the Nfld. Government is so open, why did you deny Shoal Point a renewal of its license, 3 weeks before it was due?

  • Will Cole
    December 23, 2013 - 18:59

    Does Dunderdale have something to hide? I don't know. However, notwithstanding the sometimes over-the-top rhetoric and politically-motivated showboating, I do believe the woman has the best interests of the people of the province at heart. Granted they say the road to hell is paved with good intentions, but considering the options and the critical juncture in the province's history, I'm antsy about changing the line-up mid-stream. Dunderdale's got the ball now whether she wanted it or not, and I say give her the chance to make her play. So I suppose I'll just have to trust her... for now. I just hope she knows what she’s doing.

  • Jon Smith
    December 23, 2013 - 09:50

    Mark Twain said "Politicians and diapers should be changed often and for the same reason". The fixed election date every few years is interfering with the due process-maybe it needs to be changed.

  • Joe Wiseman
    December 23, 2013 - 08:31

    As the old saying goes "a tory Government is a hard-times government." It originally referred to the economy - it can be reshaped and applied to the rights and freedoms of its citizens. What are they afraid of? Is it their own colleagues that cause them to be afraid of the people? We want a government with empathy and conscience that protects the health and safety of its citizens. Why would our government deny us access to informattion and pass regressive legislation? Should it be us that should fear our government? Doesn't ms. Dunderdale hear the words of Mr. Mendell or Mr. Ball? It begs the question as to who the public should believe - the Premier or those who are knowledgeable about the impact of her government's decisions? The next election will clear up that particular conundrum.

  • California Pete from NFLD
    December 22, 2013 - 16:47

    Then what set of books will they show. The one in their favor of course. Have a good and honest day.