It’s interesting what happens when things get nasty in the House of Assembly. On the one hand, things tend to get personal. On the other hand, sometimes signs about the internal workings of the government leak out in unexpected ways.
And that seems to be what’s happened during last week’s debate on access to information legislation.
It’s not an example of how little information government wants to release: it’s more an example of what kinds of information the government seems willing to use for its own purposes, even when that information is clearly protected by the province’s privacy legislation.
Privacy legislation exists for very important reasons. For one thing, the government has a great deal
of information about you. And because it does, there’s legislation to protect you from having that information used to someone else’s advantage.
Every now and then, though, you see a little snippet that suggests that this province’s privacy law is more than a little leaky.
Take this tweet from PC backbencher Paul Lane over the weekend: “Mitchelmore asked for same info 14 times.”
Lane was referring, inaccurately as it turned out, to a series of access to information requests from the member for The Straits-White Bay North, Chris Mitchelmore.
Lane’s tweet suggested he had information he should not have had — the identity and content of an access to information request submitted by an individual — and it’s pretty clear that information was being used for political reasons: to disparage a member of another political party.
Lane suggests in other tweets that he got the information when it was released in the House of Assembly by a minister of the Crown, Susan Sullivan.
Then, the question would turn towards Sullivan — because she would be releasing private information publicly as well.
The question gets even twistier because, first, Hansard for the day in question has yet to appear
and the NDP office maintains that Mitchelmore did not file 14 requests for information. (There is some question as to whether Sullivan
was releasing information about Mitchelmore or whether the minister was referring to the former MHA for The Straits-White Bay North, but whether she misspoke or not, videotape of the debate clearly shows Sullivan identifying Mitchelmore as having filed 14 requests.)
Now, this sounds like a tempest in a teapot until you start looking at the broader implications: the no-holds-barred use of private information is clearly an abuse of the act, and if no one tries to get to the bottom of it, that suggests the abuses are tolerable behaviour.
(There are suggestions that is already the case: a provincial
cabinet minister, Kevin O’Brien, released the name of someone requesting information — and the details of the request — on “Open Line” and absolutely zero was done about that. No punishment, no investigation.
Another interesting facet of O’Brien’s release of that information? He said that the access request in question was discussed at the cabinet table — meaning O’Brien had released details from a cabinet discussion, one of the “super no-nos” that we apparently needed new access to information legislation to protect.)
So, ask the simple question: what other sorts of information in government databanks could be used to trash opponents?
There are many diseases — including venereal diseases — that are reportable medical conditions.
If you get treated for them, your doctor has to notify the Department of Health for infection control purposes.
Would it be acceptable, for example, for the minister of health to announce that an opposition member had syphilis?
How about if, while answering questions in the House of Assembly on road safety, the minister of transportation started outlining the speeding tickets that opposition members had been given? Is it fair ball to use information from past requests for business funding, or for any other dealings with government?
Government information is not just a box of goodies that cabinet ministers and government backbenchers can dip into for ammunition in partisan attacks.
The other lesson?
Politicians should either learn to think first and tweet later, or else have their Twitter accounts shut down.
The knee-jerk slanging just looks like grade school all over again.
Russell Wangersky is The Telegram’s
editorial page editor. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.