Laws of convenience

Russell Wangersky
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On Tuesday, I wrote about the apparent double standard the provincial government has for the use and abuse of your personal information.

Governments have plenty of information about you, and are supposed to keep it private. On Tuesday, I pointed out that Government House Leader Jerome Kennedy didn't appear to have much of a problem releasing personal details about Liberal MHA Jim Bennett, all the while chastising Bennett for his questionable conduct.

Fact is, though, the PC administration has shown several times it has no qualms about dipping into personal information when there's a political gain to be made.

But first, a little history: Craig Westcott was hired in late 2010 as the communications spokesman for the provincial Liberals, a move that generated considerable ire inside provincial Tory ranks.

In fact, such ire that a provincial cabinet minister, Municipal Affairs Minister Kevin O'Brien, went on VOCM to denounce Westcott, and to reveal that Westcott had written an intemperate email to then- premier Danny Williams' communications chief, Elizabeth Matthews, in February 2009. O'Brien said the email had been discussed at the cabinet table.

The email questioned whether Williams had mental issues, and, after O'Brien's VOCM comments, was released in its entirety.

Perhaps that release didn't matter because Westcott was working for the opposition, and therefore details about him were somehow no longer private. Maybe, since he had become something of a public figure with his new appointment, it was fair game for the Tories to mine the files for dirt.

Except it isn't.

Under the act, everyone is guaranteed the exact same level of privacy.

The original framers of the province's privacy legislation thought protecting privacy was so serious that they put in place fines and jail time for misusing or improperly releasing personal information.

To be precise: "72. A person who wilfully (a) discloses personal information contrary to Part IV; is guilty of an offence and liable, on summary conviction, to a fine of not more than $5,000 or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding six months, or to both."

But before you could even suggest the law had been broken by O'Brien or anyone else, you'd have to prove that the Westcott email actually was personal information.

That, as it turns out, is easy.

Because, in fact, no less than the office of the premier of the day confirmed it was.

In bridge, you would call it a cross-ruff. In chess, it's check, moving quickly towards mate.

Within days of O'Brien's disclosure of the letter, and its subsequent public release, a savvy citizen filed an access to information request for emails between Matthews and Westcott for a time period that included the email in question.

The premier's office subsequently refused to release the Westcott email: a letter from the premier's chief of staff, Brian Taylor, dated Dec. 16, 2010 said: "Please be advised that access to these records has been refused in accordance with the section 30 of the Access to Information and Privacy Act." (Taylor had been appointed to the job 10 days earlier by Premier Kathy Dunderdale.)

Section 30 is - you guessed it - personal information: "30. (1) The head of a public body shall refuse to disclose personal information to an applicant."

So, Jerome Kennedy can release personal information about Liberal MHA Jim Bennett, and information that even Dunderdale's office admits is private can be released to attack Craig Westcott.

Go back even further, and there was the example of a private letter from Ross Klein, the head of MUN's faculty association, to then-premier Danny Williams being released strategically to counteract Klein's concerns about the university's autonomy during the search for a new university president.

This government, and the Williams administration before it, regularly talks about privacy breaches.

Investigations are immediate, and the consequences, they'd like you to believe, are dire.

Here's a release from Service NL Minister Paul Davis, talking about a recent breach at Motor Vehicle Registration: "The provincial government takes the handling of drivers' and vehicle owners' personal information extremely seriously.

"An immediate investigation into the matter was undertaken and we are now in the process of notifying the individuals whose information was accessed. ... The misuse of private information is unacceptable and we regret that this has occurred. ... We are completing a thorough review of our business practices in this area and necessary changes are being made to help to prevent other such incidents from happening in the future."

Yet no investigations appear to have taken place for any of the breaches I've described here.

Is it really one law for cabinet ministers and another law for everyone else? Because there's been no word, ever, by the province's privacy commissioner about an investigation into cabinet ministers and their use - or abuse - of the personal information in their care. Are they so exalted that the normal rules don't apply?

Laws aren't supposed to be applied by convenience.

Russell Wangersky is The Telegram's editorial page editor. He can be reached by email at

Organizations: Government House, Klein's, The Telegram

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Recent comments

  • Mindy
    March 19, 2012 - 14:52

    Cory, You speak to me as if I have no clue what a 3rd world country is or what happens there. I am well aware of the horrible situations people go through there. And yeah, at the moment, we have it pretty good in our countries in comparison. But you know what? people always exploit the workers in 3rd world countries, making them work for nothing. Look at and stuff like that, it is atrocious. There are lots of people who now have to compete with that and everyone is so greedy they will pay the least they can. But I tend to be a realistic about things not completely positive or negative. I go by facts. The fact is if we continue on the current path we are on and the greediness continues (unemployment, bad treatment of people in the workplace, cost of rent skyrocketing, etc) to become worse and worse the people who do have the money will turn their country into a 3rd world country and we will all have less than minimum wage. We are in for a dystopian future if people continue to take a greedy view on everything they do and only see money all of the time. It also seems like you assume that if I had 600mil say, that I would just spend it on luxury. I wouldn't. I would help people out a bit because that is what people should be doing. People are turning into what they supposely hate. Funny huh?

  • One thing leads to another
    March 18, 2012 - 18:24

    One thing leads to another leads to another. Patronage takes a turn for the worse when it develops into nepotism and/or cronyism. The great convenience of patronage systems is the assurance of loyalty to the person(s) in power but patronage systems are also very highly susceptible to inefficiency and corruption. Ruling with absolute power makes it difficult to detect any diversion of public monies. It is common knowledge that our government is rife with nepotism. It is also obvious that privacy laws are being used more or less schizophrenically rather than to the letter of the law. A more ethical arrangement would have been to govern with a professional, nonpartisan staff but it would take an eternity to make corrections when we are only allowed a vote once in four years. We had great hopes for Nfld/Lab but in retrospect, there are enormous costs associated with the hand-picked “team” and the Muskrat legacy is a lifetime of liabilities. The one and only sure thing that beneficiaries of the patronage system can always unfailingly be certain of is in the old adage “to the victors go the spoils”.

  • mindy
    March 18, 2012 - 14:09

    Peter, everything cannot always be positive, and there is nothing really to be positive about considering how the government are turning this place into a 3rd world country. People should be protesting. Freedoms are being taken away constantly. Bill C-11 is terrible and breaches many freedoms (I am an artist and I think we should be paid properly, but this bill is an outrage for the internet) Prices are skyrocketing (food,apartments, etc.) while wages are remaining very low and unemployment is high. The robocalls are so obviously a rigging of the elections and really should not be used at all. If the government are willing to take away internet freedom than they quite obviously would have no problem with taking away other freedoms and breaching privacy left and right. The same thing is going on in the US and a lot of places in the rest of the world. I believe it was in Greece, but they even needed to PAY to work. Look around you people! Wake up like people have in the past and do something about this nonsense, or we will be a 3rd world country and once it happens, it will be very hard to reverse.

    • Cory
      March 18, 2012 - 15:38

      Obviously Mindy you have not spent any time in a 3rd world country. I spent a couple of years over there and let me tell you we have it pretty good here. We can always hope for more but we certainly should be more appreciative of what we have. We need to be more independent as a people...we have come to rely too much on the government to do things for us. And as for our wages being low...ask the people from the Phillipines who are coming over here what our wages are like? We have Engineers from the Phillipines working at Tim Hortons, and making more money than they would back home working in their profession. Its like the old saying goes...'the more you make, the more you spend'. No amount will ever be enough for some. We need to stop trying to keep up with our happy with what we have. Mindy...what was the minimum wage 5 years ago? Alot lower than it is today! Think more feels great!

    • Townie
      March 19, 2012 - 09:08

      Cory welcome to our future!!!

  • Sheldon Walsh
    March 18, 2012 - 09:39

    Lol. If the column takes a strip off of some people's chosen political party then you're "too negative" or a partisan. But if this had been an article criticizing one of the other two parties the same people would be patting you on the back and adding their two cents in support of your views. You can't win Russell. Give it up b'y.

  • Brian
    March 17, 2012 - 20:14

    Do we have to read another negative story? Try writing something a little more positive Russell. I guess the positive stories don't get you the awards though. Oh well...

  • Terry
    March 17, 2012 - 09:09

    I do believe that this government has their own rules. They do what they want. It is clear that Kathy Dunderdale and her team of ministers are nothing more then scared cats trying to muster their way through. While I have supported them in the past I can see now that they are incompentent. Unfortunately they have little competition!!

  • Peter
    March 17, 2012 - 09:02

    No trouble to tell Wangersky's political stripes! Thanks for giving us your 'unbiased' opinions here in the paper. I see nothing wrong with occassional critisizm but Russell you need to get over being negative all the time. To read your pieces people would think we live in a 3rd world country, when we live in one of the best places in the world. Come on Russell...take off your negative glasses and write something a little more positive. You won't believe how good you will feel.

  • Cyril Rogers
    March 17, 2012 - 08:41

    It has always been this way with this PC administration, going back to 2003. Nobody seemed to be concerned when Danny issued what could be construed as a threat against the people against the people at Eastern Health or used a few other veiled threats on other individuals or organizations. His offspring in the latest Tory regime don't have any qualms about using the threat of funding cuts(to the FFAW) or, in the case of the Minister, threats against the MP in his own riding. They are very insecure in their dealings with the public and it all stems from a total lack of direction in areas like the fishery or in developing an energy policy that won't bankrupt us. Their insecurity leads them to distrust their own poeple and so those of us who criticize are written off as naysayers and not worth listening to. Isn't that the way of tin pot dictators in countries like North Korea?

    • paddyjoe
      March 17, 2012 - 09:43

      Peter, instead of dealing with the issues raised here, you shoot the messenger!