A convenient distraction

Russell
Russell Wangersky
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Ah, it’s not easy being so evil. Last week, the premier (and since then, a host of MHAs and cabinet ministers — see letters) have pounced on me about an editorial I wrote on the way the province spent $5 billion on infrastructure projects.

The umbrage dished out serves one essential purpose: to divert attention from the real issue. And that is? An independent officer of the House of Assembly said that he could not establish how the government decided to spend $5 billion, because the government claims every scrap of information about the process is a cabinet secret.

Here’s Finance Minister Tom Marshall, from “Open Line” last week: “First of all, we have to obey the law. … The law says that there’s certain information that you cannot disclose, and that you shall not disclose it. That’s what it says right now. That’s the law that the previous government brought in, and that’s the law that we have to follow until it’s changed.”

Of course, Mr. Marshall doesn’t point out that the government has had eight years to change the law — and hasn’t.

The Dunderdale administration is obviously fond of that portion of the legislation, and uses it regularly. Besides, if they did want to change it, they could have opened the House of Assembly and done it last fall.

Something else that Mr. Marshall thoughtfully forgot to point out? A government he was a minister in deliberately tightened the rules in 2008, when it brought in “The Management of Information Act,” which redefined and broadened what a “cabinet record” is.

Here’s a section from a news story in 2008: “Bill 63 widens the scope of what is considered a ‘cabinet record.’ That definition would now include all memoranda, discussion papers, proposals, and even all factual and background material prepared for cabinet. It also includes anything that is used as part of discussions among ministers, or anything created for a minister if it involves a cabinet matter. Additionally, the definition of cabinet records will include anything that contains any information about the contents of any other record referred to in other parts of the bill. ‘Cabinet records shall be managed in the manner determined by cabinet secretariat,’ Bill 63 notes.”

That’s a tougher stand than that taken in the Access to Information law that Minister Marshall was referring to, which says cabinet documents are only those that “would reveal the substance of deliberations of cabinet."

There are also arguments like this one that the rules surrounding cabinet documents should be loosened, not tightened: “The public has a right to know. Why should things be held in secret? It is the people’s money. You are the people’s representatives. … Give them the information. Why shouldn’t they have it? It does not make any sense. … I cannot understand why the people of Newfoundland and Labrador do not have a right to know that information.”

The speaker? Former premier Danny Williams.

Here’s one last thing to think about. The government of Stephen Harper is widely chided for being an administration that almost slavishly controls the release of information — yet we know more about the process used to pick G8-funded projects in federal cabinet minister Tony Clement’s riding than we do about the process used to determine where $5 billion was spent in this province.

Under federal Access law, a significant amount of material has been released about how G8 projects were chosen for funding — in this province, according to the Dunderdale government, that’s a “no-go” area. The ban on the release of potential cabinet documents to the auditor general, after all, includes documents cabinet would not even see before making its decisions.

And that’s a significant black mark for anyone who tries to claim that this province is open and accountable. The bleating will go on and on, and this column will perhaps be cited as the darkly cast “retaliation” that Kathy Dunderdale was muttering about last Friday.

Keep your eyes on the issue:

$5 billion spent on infrastructure, and only cabinet ministers are allowed to look at anything that describes how those were picked. And all of that information will be helpfully kept secret for the next 20 years. Shakespeare said it best: “The lady doth protest too much, methinks.”

 

Russell Wangersky is The Telegram’s editorial page editor. Email: rwanger@thetelegram.com.

Geographic location: Newfoundland and Labrador

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Recent comments

  • sealcove
    February 01, 2012 - 13:51

    The law is an ass sir

  • Political Torsion
    February 01, 2012 - 13:24

    Methinks some of the tactics alluded to in this column are intrinsic with Bureaucracies. In municipal government, for example, some matters can be discussed in the public meetings, however there are exceptions. HR, matters or legal matters for example. However, the criteria for making an item a legal matter might only be an email to or from a law firm. What this government appears to be doing is kicking matters upstairs, as they say. That is making some information items more important than they really are - top secret. By making too much info. exclusive cabinet jurisdiction they are diminishing the privilege of that Cabinet. To compare, some specific experience with legal matters, some lawyers who do not want particular evidence entered in a civil hearing can't exclude that critical evidence, but they can (try to) exclude the source as a party to the process and not notify that party to appear - sometimes at their clients peril! Ironically, again from specific experience, some print media are given exclusive access to some Town (and city?) council minutes that the public does not have access to. Why should the press have access to information that even the affected parties do not? Eventually the tightest cabinets leak - and the breach becomes a rupture. Concealment does not prevent justice , just delays it?

  • Doug
    February 01, 2012 - 07:14

    That 5 billion dollars is money that belongs to the people of this province and dam it, yes, I want to know here it was spent! This is corruption - plain and simple.

  • Petertwo
    February 01, 2012 - 05:20

    Just curious, but does anyone know what the word "auditor" means? What an auditor actually does? How the money was spent, not how the expenditure to spend is determined. Once spent the expenditure speaks for itself. I suppose the proposed expenditure could be deliberated in the house first, except by the time the time wasters feasted on that it is highly doubtful that anything would actually get done. But they'd all have a wonderful great entertaining debate. Maybe the house ought to be more then just entertaining?

  • marie
    January 31, 2012 - 20:24

    Business owners can do whatever they want with their own profits. They can take risks, cut products that aren’t profitable, fire people, expand, and so long as they are obeying the law, governments can’t shut them down. Businesses are accountable only to their owners and when business fails it causes no harm to customers. Not being allowed to peruse $5-Billion worth the documents relevant to the financial situation of their business would never, ever happen to a business owner. Government, on the other hand, extracts taxes and fees from everybody and collects taxes on every product, service and utility. They make all the laws that control everything and everyone. Incompetence in government sticks out like a sore thumb but very hard to get rid of. Government can’t take big risks with public money because failure could be catastrophic. It could cause hardship to many people throughout generations or even worse. Governments are financially accountable to the public. Gee, I wonder what would happen if a business owner ever tried to manage the government……..uh oh!

    • Townie
      February 01, 2012 - 08:10

      Marie have you heard of an enterprise called banks. If they fail we the taxpayers have to prop them up. Have you heard of 1% bond rates, those are for banks to make large profits. It's called buy low, sell high. After the performance by the premier yesterday I hope Mr. Wangersky is going to follow up on his comments six months ago about multiple million dollar announcements made before the election by a fiscally responsible government looking to get elected.

  • Eli
    January 31, 2012 - 13:37

    John Smith is thick, I just didn't believe he could be this thick 'till now. Slow me.

  • Mrs. Smith
    January 31, 2012 - 12:44

    John - This is your mother. The Prime Minister's office has been trying to get a hold of you. They say you're doing such a good job defending Mrs. Dunderdale on the Muskrat Falls thing and now her secrecy problems, that they could use you to persuade the public that old people don't need their pensions anymore. Give them a call right away Son. They said they'll top any deal you got with the provincial tories. And don't forget to bring the milk when you come home.

  • John Smith
    January 31, 2012 - 12:34

    The issue is not who brought the AG back...it is who thought it was a good idea to remove the position...and why. More diversion?

  • GRISHA
    January 31, 2012 - 11:16

    How in the world to you justify a law that promotes the keeping of government expenditures secret from the citizens of that government when no direct security issues are involved? As one of your southern neighbors I am unable to grasp the rationale. I understand individual political types trying to hide stuff and manipulate all possible avenues for exercising control and authority. That is the nature of that species which is why you should not have laws like that, but in fact, just the oposite.

  • Russell Wangersky
    January 31, 2012 - 11:09

    Just a note to point out a quick issue many people have missed - the PCs did not put the auditor-general "back." The auditor general has been in place for decades - what the Tories did was to bring the auditor-general back in to oversee the operations of the House of Assembly, one small part of the auditor's mandate. They did that after the Liberals and the Tories - together on what was then the Board of Internal Economy - agreed to remove the auditor in the first place, and make the constituency allowance scandal possible.

  • John Smith
    January 31, 2012 - 11:02

    It seems to me that one here who is trying to divert attention is Mr. Wangersky. The government is obeying the law...period. Everything after that is spin and innuendo, something Mr. Wangersky has become very adept at accomplishing. Then we have the usual characters jumping on to applaud Mr. Wangersky at every opportunity. The liberals dumped the AG...what about that? The government is doing all they are required to. If that is not enough, then Mr. Wangersky's attention should be focused on changing the law...not on how transparent or not the government is. Mr. Wangersky has had it out for this PC gov. since it got in. I have yet to read one positive editorial in the past ten years Re. this gov. Oh, and there have been one or two positive developments. It's starting to get a little tired Russ...jus' sayin'...

  • MBC
    January 31, 2012 - 09:11

    The Auditor General should have access to ALL government records and documents, NO RESTRICTIONS, in an Open, Transparent, and Accountable government. I am entiltled, as a taxpayer, to know just not know which projects were approved and for what amount, I am entitled to know why any project was approved. The Auditor General is responsibe for assessing this is done properly and reporting to us.

  • Sick of being governned by less than honest elected poiticians
    January 31, 2012 - 08:04

    Rule byelected Governments turns my stomach. It is time we made elected government redundant and select a capable and honest accounting system with a double set of capable and honest auditors to take care of our affairs..

  • W Bagg
    January 31, 2012 - 07:20

    They are open, accountable and Transparent...........................because they say so.