Bill 29: a refresher course for forgetful Tories

Peter
Peter Jackson
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“A comprehensive and effective Freedom of Information Act is the best safeguard against the tendency of governments to descend into official secrecy and elitism.”
— PC Blue Book, October 2003

So, the line from the PC caucus is that Kathy Dunderdale simply didn’t resonate with voters.
There is no explanation for this mercurial mismatch. It’s only personality. It couldn’t be her leadership skills or her policies or her actions; she just didn’t click.

Well, most people aren’t quite that shallow.

It really was by her deeds that she was known — along with her arrogant way of defending them. And one of those deeds — one that party defectors Tom Osborne and Paul Lane both cited by name — was the passing of Bill 29.

It boggles the mind that the remaining Tory caucus seems blissfully unaware how regressive and cynical this piece of legislation is.

It’s no secret that governments don’t like opening their file cabinets. The current PCs wouldn’t be the first lot to lose its passion for accountability once it assumed office.

And, in fact, access to information — as crucial as it is to sustaining a democratic system and rooting out corruption — is not something the public tends to get worked up about in principle. Some even suggest it’s up to journalists and others to do their own digging.

So, when the public cry went up, when journalists universally ignored the absurd spin that Bill 29 was an improvement, when experts in the field decried it as a major step backwards, and when the opposition filibustered for days to keep it off the books … something should have registered.

To be fair, Kathy Dunderdale was not even in the room during one of the most spectacular missteps in the saga. That prize goes to former justice minister Felix Collins.

 In June 2012, Collins held a press conference to unveil the new amendments to the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (ATIPPA). When pressed by reporters, however, the minister unravelled.

He touted the need to reject “frivolous or vexatious” requests, but could not give a single example of such a request.

He also could not name any provision in the bill that expands the public's ability to know what politicians and the cabinet are doing with public money.

Reporters at the press conference weren’t even given the legislation itself, just talking points on what it supposedly meant.

The amendments even exceeded the consultant’s recommendations when it came to secrecy. And the consultant, former civil servant John Cummings, was never one to cater to public nosiness.

All power now rests with individual cabinet ministers or equivalent authorities of public agencies. The independent information commissioner has been essentially declawed, leaving only the courts as a means of appeal.

Virtually anything can now be declared a cabinet document. The commissioner’s term is still two years instead of the recommended five, meaning the role is perpetually up for renewal. And the fee for information requests has jumped from $15 to $25 per hour.

In short, no amount of proactive disclosure can put a shine on that turd.

None of this occurred in a vacuum. After paying considerable lip service to open access in opposition, former premier Danny Williams launched an all-out war on his own information commissioner in 2005, taking him to court rather than allowing him to even look at certain documents.

"If it means that, as a result of a court decision, confidential cabinet information will be made available that shouldn't be, then I will change the legislation," Williams said, basically declaring the government as sole arbiter.

The judge ruled in the government’s favour, but only because the law was unclear as to the commissioner’s powers.

Now, at least, the law is clear. The commissioner has no powers.

Some advice to remaining PC members: you may be tempted to sweep Bill 29 under the rug. But don’t insult our intelligence by praising it in public.

 

Peter Jackson is The Telegram’s

commentary editor. Email: pjackson@thetelegram.com.

Organizations: Tory

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Recent comments

  • John Smith
    January 29, 2014 - 17:51

    I heard Mr. marshall talking about this today...he said..."I asked someone once what part of the bill they had a problem with?" All he got back was silence. When will people wake up and realize that this is a scam perpetrated by the media, and the Liberals. The privacy commishioner has said he has no problem with it...and Dwight has said as soon as the liberals get rid of it they will bring in their own privacy bill. This was manufactured by the media and the opposition...and that is a fact....no access needed...LOL

    • Tony Rockel
      January 30, 2014 - 09:59

      The only person running a scam here is "John Smith" who hasn't the guts to use his real name. How stupid does he think we all are? LOL indeed!

  • Bert
    January 29, 2014 - 16:05

    Peter I was searching through the archives trying to find a story you must have written about Roger Grimes and the Liberals not allowing the AG into the house to audit the books. Could not find it anywhere. Would you over-rule your your bill 29 and locate it for me?

  • Corporate Psycho
    January 29, 2014 - 15:16

    Collins is now Attorney General. Pretty scary stuff.

  • DON II
    January 29, 2014 - 09:29

    The creation and passage of Bill 29, known to those of us who regularly try to access Government information, as the State Secrets and Cover Up Act, was an act of desperation and an admission of guilt by the Government of Newfoundland. The Government of Newfoundland continues to hide and censor information with impunity. It appears that the Government of Newfoundland is hiding information relating to the unethical, incompetent, corrupt, wasteful and/or unlawful activity that permeates the operations of the Government of Newfoundland from top to bottom! If the opposition parties want to have any credibility with the people they must go on the public record prior to and during the next election with a written commitment that if elected, they will abolish Bill 29 and replace it with a modern and transparent Access to Government Information Act Bill that will virtually open up all Government held information for public and media access and scrutiny. High Fees which are charged for information access applications and for search, retrieval and copying of paper documents and files must be totally eliminated. The information should also be open for personal inspection by the access applicant to ensure that all requested information has been retrieved and has not been withheld or edited prior to being released! Only corrupt and incompetent Governments hide information from the public. It is doubtful that the Government of Newfoundland has any State Secrets or National Security documents to hide unless they have some secret military bases and missile silos stashed away somewhere that they do not want the enemy to know about. Speaking of the enemy, the public and the media are clearly considered by the Government of Newfoundland to be "enemies of the State."!