“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: firstname.lastname@example.org.