Last Thursday’s government release of the ostensibly “threatening” phone message by Liberal MHA Jim Bennett to the constituency office of cabinet member Joan Burke raises a very interesting question. And not just questions about Bennett’s judgement, which, quite simply, left a lot to be desired.
No, the information the government chose to release also says something very interesting about the provincial government’s attitude towards the information it has in its possession.
Thursday, Government House Leader Jerome Kennedy was willing to release not only details about Bennett’s call, but read the transcript of the call itself in the House of Assembly (and then released tapes of the call to the media).
Yet, at the same time, the provincial government has gone all the way to the Supreme Court to protect its own political emails from being released.
Not only to stop them from being released, but to stop them from even being viewed by the province’s privacy commissioner, Ed Ring.
Under the province’s Access
to Information legislation, The Telegram requested emails and text messages from then-business minister Ross Wiseman’s government account in January 2011, after Brad Cabana — who wanted to run for the Tory leadership — said one of Wiseman’s aides supposedly threatened him with “personal destruction” if he kept trying to get the job.
The government refused to release the documents, saying that the emails were “political in nature” and therefore exempt from the act, even though the taxpayers were paying for the minister’s phone system.
Ring wanted to view the emails to see if the government was properly applying the law. The provincial government refused and the issue was fought all the way to the Supreme Court.
Ring lost the battle, but it’s interesting to consider the two cases side by side.
To put it simply, a call to a Conservative political assistant from an opposition MHA can be made public at the drop of a hat. Email and text contacts from a minister to a Conservative political assistant can be top secret, and their release will be fought in the top courts of this province, using taxpayers’ money.
There are some interesting asides to the whole situation, because in the Bennett case, it’s pretty clear the government was willing to bend (or maybe break) the very laws it was so staunchly defending in the Cabana case.
Kennedy, of course, is a lawyer, and should probably be aware that this province has laws that restrict the release or use of private information by government officials.
If you look at the Access to Information and Privacy legislation, “3. (1) The purposes of this Act are to make public bodies more accountable to the public and to protect personal privacy by … preventing the unauthorized collection, use or disclosure of personal information by public bodies …”
And what is personal information?
In the definition section of the act, “‘personal information’ means recorded information about an identifiable individual, including …(i) the individual's name, address or telephone number …”
No exceptions, no exemptions, no excuses.
You can’t say the government wasn’t aware of privacy concerns: after all, they cut out the name of the constituent Bennett was trying to help. And, by the way, it doesn’t matter if the numbers Kennedy released were available as close as the local phone book.
It’s identifying information that shouldn’t be released.
But Kennedy did what he liked
Just the way the provincial government did what it liked, and blocked its own access commissioner from looking to see if the government was cheating to keep information about its actions secret.
Clearly, it’s one rule to try and cook the opposition’s goose.
It’s quite another when the job is protecting the government’s gander.
Access to information legislation in this province is clearly a law of convenience.
And just wait: the provincial government promised in the throne speech to bring in changes to the province’s privacy legislation. And what will be coming? More access and transparency?
Or a better ability to cover one’s own arse?
Russell Wangersky is The Telegram’s editorial page editor. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.