Sorry, that’s on a need-to-know basis, and you don’t need to know
“Whoever wishes to keep a secret must hide the fact that he possesses one.”
— Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
(1749-1832), German playwright,
poet, novelist and dramatist
Anyone reading my column last week must have wondered why I was playing ostrich and hiding my head in a hole in the ground.
Why was I writing about the federal government when the provincial government had finally shown its true colours and introduced draconian access-to-information legislation?
Well, columnists do go on vacation — even if you don’t get a break from them — and that one was written in advance. I was actually in England when Justice Minister Felix Collins was giving the most cringeworthy performance of his career.
Thanks to technology, I was able to listen to the whole news conference, which saw him dancing a desperate dance as he tried to avoid the unerring bullets being shot at his feet.
Rarely have I witnessed a politician so ill-equipped to answer questions about his own government’s initiative.
Poor Felix-the-Fall-Guy. It was left to him to try and defend a new and even more prohibitive access-to-information law that is so outrageous in scope, he would not even present copies of it to the media for their scrutiny. Instead, he made excuses, saying reporters could not see the legislation until it had a first reading in the House.
That, as the English would say, is bollocks.
Members of the media regularly view legislation before it is tabled. Every year, in fact. It’s called the budget.
Collins fumbled his way through the news conference, unable to give any examples of how the old law was lacking and why Bill 29 was needed.
At the end, the “enhanced” and “strengthened” legislation he had been sent to unveil was shot full of holes by reporters’ questions, and revealed to be the flimsy excuse for keeping information away from the public that it is.
I actually laughed out loud when I read Collins’ quote in The Telegram, where he acknowledged that he expected the new rules would get some push-back:
“We knew it wasn’t going to be a love-in,” he said. “When you bring in this kind of legislation that tries to strike a balance between (the) public’s access and the right to information and good stewardship and good governance, you expect to find some negative reaction.”
Yes, that makes perfect sense. Anything balanced and designed for the greater good always stirs up a big racket.
Good logic, there.
It’s no trouble to tell the provincial government has been taking lessons from the Harper Conservatives — reduce service to the public and call it “enhanced.”
“When this government proclaimed the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act in 2005, we did so because the public have the right to information and it helps public bodies be more open and accountable,” Collins said in the news release that announced the changed rules.
“The amendments brought forward today uphold our continued commitment to this important piece of legislation.”
In fact, the amendments he brought forward that day undermine the government’s commitment to accountability and transparency, of which everyone is well aware.
Just how stupid do they think we are?
Let’s not play games here. This government has finally tipped its hand. It wants to restrict the flow of information to the opposition, the media and the public, so as to potentially avoid political embarrassment or let anything slip about Muskrat Falls.
Kathy Dunderdale’s government has fallen into the arrogance-and-entitlement trap that so many other governments — of any stripe — have after they’ve had a comfortable majority for too long.
This administration has forgotten who its real masters are — the voting public; the people who pay their generous salaries and pensions. The people who have no final recourse than to file an access-to-information request if they have been the victim of some government injustice.
We’re talking people who cannot afford to take the provincial government all the way to court if their access request is denied.
Nor can most media outlets or the opposition parties — at least not very often.
And the government knows this full well. So, it’s one level of access to information if you’re rich, and a lesser level if you’re not.
Without access to information, the truth of the botched breast cancer test results would never have been revealed.
Details about the failed search for 14-year-old Burton Winters in Makkovik would still be a secret.
It would never have been proven that Joan Burke was being misleading when she denied the government had blatantly interfered in the search for a new president for Memorial University.
These are the kinds of dirty little secrets your government does not want you to be able to find out about.
If information is knowledge, then this government wants to keep you ignorant.
And, in the absence of knowledge and truth, rumours and mistrust will flourish.
Whether we are hoodwinked or not, we will suspect we are.
Stephen Harper’s government was found to be in contempt of Parliament.
With Bill 29, Kathy Dunderdale’s is clearly in contempt of the people.
Pam Frampton is a columnist and
The Telegram’s associate managing editor.
She can be reached by email at