Premier Tom Marshall was asked Wednesday if he had any thoughts about how damaging
Bill 29 has been for the Progressive Conservative party.
“Any thoughts? Not that I can express in good company,” he said.
At the afternoon media appearance, Marshall offered the clearest signal so far that the Tories are running away from Bill 29 just as fast as they can.
The suite of amendments, passed in the spring of 2012, vastly increased the scope of government secrecy, allowing bureaucrats much broader power to withhold government documents, and in many cases making it flatly illegal for them to share information with the public.
Since the legislation was passed, Tom Osborne has ditched the PC party, saying that Bill 29 was one of the big reasons for leaving.
Earlier this month, Paul Lane also jumped ship, and took some shots at the government over Bill 29 on his way out the door.
The Liberals, the NDP and at least one PC leadership candidate have all taken aim at Bill 29, signalling that if they get to take the reins, the bill will be repealed.
Now, it looks like Marshall is trying to beat them all to the punch.
“Cabinet will be meeting (on Thursday) and
I’ll be asking my cabinet to give consideration to a review of Bill 29, and to consider some options that we have to look at amendments to the legislation,” he said.
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Premier may decide on judicial review
This shouldn’t really come as a surprise to anyone. The access to information law contains a clause — hidden away right near the end — that requires the government to conduct a review of the legislation every five years.
The last review happened in 2010, and nearly all of the recommendations that commissioner John Cummings proposed were drafted into Bill 29.
That time around, access to information legislation wasn’t too controversial, and aside from a few journalists and policy wonks, the consultations didn’t draw much attention.
But five years down the road — in 2015 — the government was always going to be required by law to review the access to information system. All Marshall is really doing is saying that he wants to do it a year early.
To guarantee independence, Marshall said he wants to chat with Information and Privacy Commissioner Ed Ring, and he might get a judge to do the review.
This time around, everybody who follows politics in the province is fully immersed in the Bill 29 debate, so if you don’t show up to the meetings and make yourself heard, you have nobody but yourself to blame if you don’t like the final result.
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Marshall isn’t convinced that people are going to find anything to hate if they actually read the legislation. He implied that Bill 29 as an idea is very controversial, but people don’t actually oppose the nuts and bolts of it.
“People I talk to about Bill 29, when I ask them, well, what parts of it were you concerned about? They didn’t say anything,” he said. “There was just a feeling out there that there was something wrong with Bill 29.”
Marshall might be right.
Most people never bother to actually read a piece of legislation, and most people will never have a reason to file an access to information request.
In the journalism world, people file access to information requests all the time, and many reporters, editors and producers were appalled by Bill 29.
But even in newsrooms across the province, most journalists will tell you that not all of the amendments in Bill 29 were bad.
The legislation was broken before the spring of 2012, and there were problems that needed fixing.
But among people who use the system, the common view is that certain provisions went way too far, especially when it comes to the realm of cabinet secrecy.
But aside from the specifics, it’s the overall idea of “Bill 29” that’s toxic.
Felix Collins, the justice minister who brought Bill 29 into the House of Assembly, was welcomed back into cabinet Wednesday, after a few months cooling his heels in the back benches.
When he was asked how it feels about Bill 29 being in the crosshairs, even Collins tried to distance himself from it.
He said that really, he was just one minister in the cabinet, and everybody shares the blame.
“Bill 29 was a total government bill,” he said. “All ministers and all departments had considerable input into Bill 29, and cabinet on a number of occasions considered it.”
In the end, that may be the problem.
No matter what the government does to try to reverse the damage, the big question hanging over it all is this: will anybody really trust the PC party to rewrite the access to information laws, after they went so wrong the first time?