You cannot help but ask this simple question: who is giving the current provincial government their communications advice and why does that person still have a job? Because, without a doubt, their latest foray into trying to manage the message is an unmitigated disaster. Not only that, it’s the kind of comic misadventure that’s likely to become a comedy “kicker” for newscasts across this country.
Monday, the provincial government of Newfoundland and Labrador held a technical session and a news conference to “outline amendments” to a piece of the province’s legislation — except, the minister and his staff refused to actually release the amendments. The officials involved provided a Powerpoint presentation outlining what the changes could mean, but refused to actually show the legislation. Then, Justice Minister Felix Collins held a news conference where reporters could ask questions about legislation they haven’t even seen. And to top it all off, the legislation in question was the province’s access to information act.
But the humour doesn’t end there.
In Minister Collins’ world, the changes to the legislation will “enhance and strengthen” the province’s access to information law. In a release, Collins said “The cornerstone of the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act is openness, transparency and accountability, and our government is committed to this important piece of legislation.”
In fact, though, not one single change in the act will allow any more access; the vast majority of the changes actually reduce access to information, by giving provincial government officials more excuses to keep information secret.
More information will be considered cabinet secrets, even though the information in question might not ever have been presented to cabinet; people who request information can now — if the minister decides as such — have their request deemed “frivolous, vexatious, made in bad faith, trivial, repetitious, systematic, or amount to an abuse of process.”
Companies dealing with the government will have more opportunities to keep those dealings secret. Government documents will continue to be kept out of the hands of the province’s auditor general, and out of the purview of the province’s access to information commissioner. That access commissioner, Ed Ring, commented on the possibility of at least one of these changes last fall and asked “whether citizens of this province should enjoy the services of a strong commissioner who is fully able to uphold the rights of citizens granted under that act, or whether the citizens of this province should stand at the back of the line and settle for having the weakest commissioner of an access to information law in Canada.” Ring got his answer: the Dunderdale government has settled on the weakest link.
Meanwhile, at the news conference on a piece of access to information legislation reporters couldn’t have, Collins closed off his statement by saying, “The amendments brought forward today uphold our continued commitment to this important piece of legislation while providing clarity on the right to information.”
Clarity? The only thing that’s clear is that the current administration has more of a commitment to protecting the interests of those inside government and to those doing business with government than it does to guaranteeing the public’s right to information that, in the end, all taxpayers have paid for.