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."
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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: firstname.lastname@example.org.