There’s the booby prize, and then there’s the bottom of the barrel.
When it comes to openness, it looks like Newfoundland is in the latter category.
A report by two British academics has placed Canada dead last in terms of freedom of information (FOI) among five major parliamentary democracies — Australia, New Zealand, Ireland, the United Kingdom and Canada.
The report was published in the Government Information Quarterly.
According to a Canadian Press (CP) story by Dean Beeby, the authors criticized Canada’s FOI laws as an antiquated system that generally prevents citizens from filing requests electronically and compels them to submit paper cheques to cover fees.
“Canada comes last as it has continually suffered from a combination of low use, low political support and a weak Information Commissioner since its inception,” the authors wrote.
None of this should come as a shock.
A 2008 study commissioned by the Canadian Newspaper Association and others found pretty much the same thing. That report put the effectiveness of Canada’s system behind that of the United States, among other countries.
This is lamentable, considering Canada was always seen as a model for government transparency. That status has taken a nosedive under Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s leadership.
Canada’s information commissioner, Suzanne Legault, is all too aware of the problem.
“We can use our own data, and come to the conclusion that our system is in decline,” she told CP, noting that only 16 per cent of the 35,000 requests filed last year resulted in the full disclosure of information.
A decade ago, that ratio was 40 per cent.
So, where does that put Newfoundland?
Well, it was less than a year ago that an alarmed Suzanne Legault urged her Newfoundland counterpart to appeal two court decisions that restricted his powers.
Commissioner Ed Ring lost a court challenge against measures that barred him from even examining — let alone ruling on — anything the government considered covered by lawyer-client privilege.
The government’s message? If our lawyers have seen it, you can’t.
“It’s a slippery slope in terms of encroachment (on) this independent oversight,” Legault told The Telegram at the time, “and that’s why Canadians — in all provinces and territories — should be concerned, because we have to make sure that this independent oversight remains.”
In short, not only was Newfoundland following the national trend of lax compliance with FOI, it was actively trying to undermine it through the courts.
This is not,
as some cynics may suggest, just about a nosy or sensationalist media.
This is serious stuff.
Among every handful of spurious requests for information is one that could provide crucial information to citizens. Information on wasteful government spending, on safety issues and even outright corruption.
Democratic governments answer to the people, and FOI laws are the sacred trusts that keep governments honest.
Newfoundland, it would seem, has nowhere to go but up, at this point.
We can only hope this is one legacy of Danny Williams’ administration that will be left in the dust.
Peter Jackson is The Telegram’s commentary editor. He can be contacted by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.