A tale of two standards

Russell Wangersky
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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 rwanger@thetelegram.com.

Organizations: Supreme Court, Government House, Tory

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Recent comments

  • The word "hypocrite" immediately springs to mind
    March 14, 2012 - 08:05

    The word “hypocrite” immediately springs to mind but it’s more serious than that when the person(s) laying down the law are actually above that same law themselves, and are apparently taking the law into their own hands just to obtain revenge or as a convenience to themselves. When the police and courts don’t apply the law to everyone equally, is it even a democracy? People who believe that dictators aren’t elected can do a little research to learn the truth. It appears that nobody was allowed to run against Danny Williams’ hand-picked successor and the tie-in with Muskrat is no coincidence. While Churchill was supposedly a mistake we are still paying for, Muskrat is the debt we are willing to take on to pay for Danny Williams LEGACY. With political interference, subsidies in their own chosen interests and the authority to write their own privacy laws; who owns what may never be known. While politicians boast of great wealth, more of our people fall further and further into the depths poverty. It seems inevitable that the plan is to replace NfLders with immigrants who will work for less, pay more taxes and gladly vote for anyone who promises not to send them back to a war torn homeland. Nflders are neither stupid nor crazy but something isn’t right. Our politicians surely need a lot more from us than just a scatter vote. I hope they will accept our help to make NfLd a better place for all our people and not just for the privileged few.

  • pharmocist
    March 14, 2012 - 06:44

    Is this cuba

  • Brad Cabana you are correct in all that you have said about governance in Newfoundland and Labrador
    March 13, 2012 - 14:37

    Brad Cabana Thanks for weighing in, you are 100 per cent correct in what you say on how governance is conducted in our province. My humble opinion is that It is run no different than the way the Dictators of the World rein over their subjects. There is certainly a lot of resemblance there if one wanted to sit and compare. I think more and more Newfoundlanders and Labradorians are beginning to see the full picture that is evolving. Even Canadians are starting to call the Federal Government a Dictatorship.

  • Cyril Rogers
    March 13, 2012 - 11:32

    The unmitigated gall of this PC government rivals anything Joey Smallwood did in his latter years as Premier, and then some. They are arrogant, uncompromising, and ignorant of the lessons of history. They don't give a hoot about the average person and whether we have good governance. To ask Premier Dunderdale to reform the system is tanamount to asking the fox to protect the hens.

  • sealcove
    March 13, 2012 - 11:25

    Looks like williams was looking after his future this is laughable

  • ben
    March 13, 2012 - 10:39

    My big problem here is the way Bennett discredits public sector workers. And its not a 'he said, he said' like Cabana says...this idiot left a message on a voicemail. I am one of those 'idiots and slackers' that Bennett referenced and I feel my job is instrumental to this province. Hopefully this idiot Bennett doesn't get into govt any time soon. And my respect for lawyers went down dramatically too...to think this guy actually passed the bar exam says that any 'idiot' in the province can do this.

  • Brad Cabana
    March 13, 2012 - 10:20

    When my family and I were threatened by Wiseman's EA it was almost unbelievable that it could happen in this day and age. The "mafia mentality" of the ego maniacs involved with NL politics at the highest levels needs to change. We have to realize that as citizens we have the right to be involved in the destiny of our own province, and that it is not the sole right of an exclusive club that will decide. To expose what Wiseman's aide did, at his direction, is a necessary step in that direction.

  • Maurice E. Adams
    March 13, 2012 - 09:08

    “I have met with numerous mining companies who have all indicated an interest in the power available from Muskrat Falls.... we have assured them that the 40 per cent of extra energy will be available if needed.” ---- Minister Kennedy, March, 2012. ++++++ 20% free for Emera, 40 % at 'competitive rates" for Danny's multi-billion dollar mining corporation clients of western Labrador (the rates will have to compete with Hydro Quebec at 5 cents/KWh), 40% for the island at excessively high rates (increased dramatically for our children and grand children due to a 50 year mortgage period and having our future generations pay for power WE DON'T NEED). ++++++ BUT....... people have to be convinced that "we" DO need the power NOW, or else Emera and western Labrador mining companies would not benefit ---- at our cost, at our substantial costs

    • er, yeah
      March 13, 2012 - 10:42

      I think your campaign is in the wrong article - something like a robo-call.

  • Why isn't protection of information the same for all
    March 13, 2012 - 08:46

    The statement below you coined Mr. Wangersky is priceless. "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". Yes, indeed, the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador operations badly needs Reform. We, the electorate of Newfoundland and Labrador, are being shafted no matter who we have in power. Reforms to the operations of our provincial government dealings are badly needed if we are to move forward with a job filled economy and infrastructure. The only ones who seemed to have been able to move forward over the past 63 years in our province, from the dealings of the governments that were in power, were the politicians and bureaucrats themselves and the outside entities who were selected by them and became the primary beneficiaries of our exported natural and human resource base to create vibrant economies elsewhere. Premier Dunderdale would do herself, her province and its electorate a great favor if she made the decision to Reform the corrupt way government works in Newfoundland and Labrador. That is the route Premier Dunderdale if you have a desire to stay in power in our province and be respected, no other method of governance will cut it at this point. Premier, You have a wounded population here who have been shafted election after election and they want Reform that will provide honesty, integrity, accountability and transparency in government dealings!

  • She's gone Boyz
    March 13, 2012 - 07:38

    Its like this muskratfalls, kennedy can come out and use assumptions made by NalcoR as facts to try a muddle the truth to the people of the province. But the if we step back and look at the bigger picture we have to ask ourselves two MAJor questions. (1) How can we pass a 6.2- 10 BILLION dollar deal without a real proper debate ?(2) Why are we building this if we only need half of the power? Building something twice as big as WE NEED to be sold at less than a quater of what it costs to produce it wasn't in the bussiness 101 that I took. I guess that the federal tories give out tax breaks to big multi-Nationals and us dumbies down here just to subsidize the power for their projects to help double their money. THis is a bussiness venture with taxpayers money and no bussiness plan.