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: firstname.lastname@example.org.