You’ll know only what they want you to know

Russell Wangersky
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Oh, there’s just so much to talk about, so many individual and restrictive changes. But let’s just call it what it is: the provincial government has released draft legislation that will gut the public’s right to know and turn the province’s access to information laws into a joke.

The government has sampled and selected the restrictive portions of access to information legislation across this nation, and has built a patchwork quilt that can truly be called the weakest such legislation in the country.

The legislation being proposed increases the fees charged for locating information, continues to block the province’s auditor general from viewing documents, extends the definition of cabinet documents (kept from view for decades) to include documents that the provincial cabinet might not even see (let alone use in their deliberations) and continues to block the province’s access to information commissioner from viewing some documents to see if the government is improperly holding them back.

But while there are scores of changes, trying thinking about just one.

The province says it’s just imposing the majority of recommendations from a review of the act that, to call a spade a spade, mostly took the advice of public servants complaining about having to tell the public anything at all.

But the government also came up with its own particular legislative changes, ones that even the review didn’t contemplate.

This is just one of those.

Judges, looking at legislation, often make a point of using plain-language interpretations of words used.

So, focus that sort of examination on just one clause in the province’s recommended changes. (And keep in mind, this is a change so all-encompassing that even the latest review of the act did not recommend it. This came directly from a government that pretends to be transparent and accountable.)

The government plans to add a section to the discretionary reasons for blocking the release of information. It’s going to be known as section 20 (1) (c).

Under the proposed change, “The head of a public body may refuse to disclose to an applicant information that would reveal … consultations or deliberations involving officers or employees of a public body, a minister or staff of a minister.”

In 35 words, the provincial government has given its employees the ability to block the release of anything — because what in government cannot be defined in some way as either a consultation or a deliberation?

With this amendment alone, the bar for withholding information will not just be set low — it will be completely buried underground.

Go back for a moment and look at what the act is supposed to do.

“The purposes of this Act are to make public bodies more accountable to the public and to protect personal privacy by; (a) giving the public a right of access to records; (b) giving individuals a right of access to, and a right to request correction of, personal information about themselves; (c) specifying limited exceptions to the right of access …”

Exemptions are supposed to be limited: now, they are unlimited.

So, you’ll have a right of access — but only to the information that the Dunderdale government wants you to see.

These are inward-looking changes; they are a true example of a government focusing on what’s best for its own interests, rather than on the needs of a province. Government politicians will hate to hear these words, but the removal of effective access to information law shows this government did not learn anything from the removal of oversight that created this province’s constituency allowance scandal. The best disinfectant is sunshine; the Dunderdale administration has opted for darkness.

Here’s a final thought: during the past few years, Canadians have learned through federal access law about G8 and G20 spending on gazebos, about Defence Minister Peter MacKay’s use of search and rescue helicopters, and about senior bureaucrats concerns about

F-35 fighter spending.

Every bit of that information would still be secret, specifically blocked from view, if the federal act were amended in the way this province’s government is about to amend our provincial legislation.

The Harper government is renowned for its secrecy: the Dunderdale government is clearly about to out-do the secrecy of Stephen Harper.

Now, there’s a legacy.

Russell Wangersky is The Telegram’s

editorial page editor. Email:

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Recent comments

  • Sean
    June 16, 2012 - 09:56

    I agree with some of this article. I do not agree that there is some grand conspiracy, but I do agree that the Dunderdale government has an agenda that they do not want others to find out about. For a government that preaches openness and transparency, they have a sad way of expressing it. I think Dunderdale is going to sell out this province for her own personal gain. I really do think that the people of NL and Labrador should be heard. Contact your members (even if they are Cons) and voice your concerns over this bill. The government fails to realize that they are supposed to represent the people and in a democracy, the PEOPLE have a right to know that the government is up to. If this bill passes, we are one step closer to a Dictatorship.

  • Scott Free
    June 13, 2012 - 14:47

    Did anyone expect anything different from that Secret Society known as the Con Party of NL? Little Man Dan and his dictatorial behaviour served as a prime training ground for Dunderdale's down with democracy decree. Sadly, our Premier has taken on the worst characteristics of her predecessor and her closeness with Prorougie Steve has influenced her contempt of taxpayers and distain for democracy. Corruption abounds; four more years of deceit, lies and cover-ups ahead. Surely there can't be a Tory spin on this one, can there? er, hello John Smith; why so silent on this issue? Little Man Dan didn't write your spin yet?

  • The Newfoundland and Labrador Government has gone completely Dictatorial in its governance
    June 13, 2012 - 08:21

    If we had bred more CARING PEOPLE like Brad Cabana, what a glorious and wonderful economy we could have had here in Newfoundland and Labrador. If more people could have scanned through the non-transparency created by Government and became aware enough to decipher matters so as to have spoken up, we could have nipped the kleptomaniacs in the bud many, many years ago. Our natural resources would not have ended up in the domain of the politicians, bureaucrats and their corporate friends, as what we have witnessed over the past 63 years. I have a feeling after this group of politicians are finished, there won't be one resource left. Besides the in-group having control of our natural resources for their own personal economies we, the people of Newfoundland and Labrador, will be paying for the energy to run the development of the resources with cheap power paid for through our energy bills being elevated on an annual basis, and besides that revenue from our Oil will have to be utilized to subsidize the mortgage of the Muskrat Falls development. This group, it seems, are far worse than any other group of politicians that we have been used to in the past and we all know we have never gotten ahead in this hauntingly beautiful province despite, Nature's endowment to our province of great natural resources. Newfoundlanders and Labradorians will be left holding the bag with nothing left for us to do any business with, what is left of our resources will now be in the hands of the politicians of the last 12 years. Now, as we are witnessing, they are blocking out all information to the people so that it can all be done without anyone ever becoming aware. It was bad enough before but it has gone completely CORRUPT with the blocking of Access of Information

    • Henry
      June 13, 2012 - 10:37

      Brad, you're sad.

    • David
      June 13, 2012 - 14:25

      You started your post with the idea of 'breeding more' people like...whoever..... and I just stopped reading it right there. Breed more --- like sheep or dogs. I would weep for this place if there was any point. Truly.

    • Frank
      June 13, 2012 - 15:14

      I think all you people need to get a life. You must all watch Conspiracy Theories with Jesse Ventura!

  • Herb Morrison
    June 13, 2012 - 07:43

    I stand to be corrected on this, but wasn't it the Liberals under then Premier Brian Tobin, who refused to allow the Auditor-General of the day access to information. The really scary thing about this situation is that both M.H.A's, as well as M.P.S, past and present, regardless of political stripe, seem to fear transparency, where their actions are concerned, be it as individuals or as a party. Peter Mackay, Bev Ota, Tony Clement, J.R. Smallwood, Brian Tobin all stand a living, breathing examples of Politicians who feared the spectre of transparency. So why would it suprise anyone that the present Government is willing to go to any llengths to cover itrs' collective backside.

  • William Daniels
    June 12, 2012 - 20:11

    Kook or not. Cabana is right. Minister Amateur Davis got up in the HOA and said there were thousands of requests and he wasn't even close. That sounds like a misrepresentation to me. We are being taken advantage of and it must be stopped. Call your MHA !!

  • Michael
    June 12, 2012 - 17:50

    Sounds like what we could know, might hurt them.

  • Henry
    June 12, 2012 - 13:36

    Brad Cabana, you come off like a total kook. Why do you have such an obsession with NL and Danny Williams and the PC's? Is it because they denied you, the come from away saviour, your chance to lead us? You are a joke and have people threatening lawsuits all over the place. Seriously you need to get a grip. This legislation is scary and I in no way agree with it, but I also do not agree with you, Brad Cabana.

    • Edna
      June 12, 2012 - 16:59

      Henry - Why do YOU have "such an obsession" with not wanting anyone "from away" to voice an opinion or get involved? Do you think Newfoundlanders living in urban centres on the mainland get chastized for taking an active interest regarding the politics where they currently live? Highly unlikely. In short, some of the double standards on this island are well past their best before date.

    • Eli
      June 12, 2012 - 18:30

      Hey Henry, it was Danny Williams who closed the books on Muskrat Falls.

    • Brad Cabana
      June 13, 2012 - 00:32

      1) My home is in NL; 2) There are no saviors other than the one in the Bible; 3) Alderon/Danny Williams have threatened to sue me as opposed to "people threatening lawsuits all over the place"; and 4) I don't care what you agree with,I'll speak my mind as freely as the next.

    • Edna
      June 13, 2012 - 07:26

      Another comment for "Henry" - As citizens in a democracy, we have an obligation to take an interest in the regional politics where we live, regardless of where we are from originally. Mr. Cabana and countless other "CFAs" in this province work here, pay taxes here and vote here - and are perfectly entitled to be actively engaged in the political process if they so choose.

    • Henry
      June 13, 2012 - 10:34

      Brad, so you have a female alter ego? Touchy.

    • Edna
      June 13, 2012 - 13:15

      "Brad, so you have a female alter ego? Touchy." Henry, I'm sitting here laughing. Is that the best retort you can come up with at this point? Tell ya something: It's people like you who are "touchy" - You can't stand for someone "from away" to get too much attention.

    • Henry
      June 13, 2012 - 14:00

      Uh the "attention" Cabana got was thoroughly negative and he is the biggest joke ever in this province, CFA or not.

    • Edna
      June 13, 2012 - 14:07

      There are very, very many exceptionally gifted and highly respected Newfoundlanders - people who excel in fields such as medicine, acadamia, the arts, media ,et cetera. And that's great. But it seems like an awful lot of Newfoundlanders can't stand for a "CFA" to be the recipient of too much attention or recognition. Enough with the insular mentality. If Newfoundlanders want to maintain their "friendly" reputation, they're going to have to start walking the walk instead of just talking the talk. With the economy now booming here, more and more people "from away" will be taking up residence on this island. There's room here for everyone to shine - if you're willing to let it happen.

    • Edna
      June 13, 2012 - 14:28

      Henry, you brought up in your very first post, above, that Brad Cabana is a "come from away." Now it seems like you've changed your tune and feel that the fact that he's a CFA is not really relevant. At this point, I'll take the liberty of patting myself on the back for perhaps contributing to your newly enlightened status. Haha. We don't all think Brad Cabana is a "kook," but you are entitled to your opinion.

  • Brad Cabana
    June 12, 2012 - 12:27

    This government is attempting to turn back the hands of time with this ammendment. It is attempting to stifle all requests for information. Frivolous and vexatious are the terms used for Ministers to be able to twart access to information requests at their whim. One definition of vexatious is " causes worry". So any Minister will be able to refuse an information request if the release of that information causes him/her "worry". That should be a read flag to all those in the media and public who love freedom and expect it to be respected. If this Bill goes through, which it must by sheer numbers, the media and/or the Opposition should file an injunction in Court based on their Charter rights being violated. The Charter states: Fundamental freedoms 2. Everyone has the following fundamental freedoms: (b) freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, including freedom of the press and other media of communication; How can you have an opinion without the proper information to form it.How can the press be free to communicate when they can't access the information to report the facts freely. These are serious fundamental pillars of our democratic society. File the injunction.

  • David
    June 12, 2012 - 09:07

    Over a long period, the governemnt a society has is exactryl the one it deserves. A rogue candidate can win a seat, or even a surprise party might win a term in office, but in the big picture, the system ends up being exactly the one that the voters will tolerate. In that regard, the political history of this province is quite distrubing and sad. Legislation or not, government here hides whatever it wants to. The only signal to take away from this policy move is that the current government sees decisions and situations ahead that are so material that it is simply prudent to put even more roadblocks in place than usual. Red lights are flashing, but does anyone care?

    • David Snow
      June 12, 2012 - 10:44

      We had a non politician as premier (Danny Williams) and crooked politicians of all parties went to jail. It seems that the politicians are back and they want to make sure that this sort of thing can't happen again.

    • David
      June 12, 2012 - 12:16

      I just threw up a little. The absolutely psychotic love affair with Danny "The Ego" Williams isn't over even yet, let alone an objective assessment of the deep, permanent damage done under his watch --- both the 'known but left unexamined' stuff, and the 'yet to surface but will anyone care because it's too late anyway' stuff. An immense amount of patience is clearly required for that, grasshopper.....

  • Doug Long
    June 12, 2012 - 07:55

    Everything - everything that the government does can be marked as secret once this bill is passed ... and even the Auditor General can not investigate this government. It would be fool-hearty to trust any government that much?