Wednesday night brought one of the most surreal exchanges the House of Assembly has seen in a long while.
It was fueled by a toxic mixture of sleep deprivation, provocative news reportage, new technology and, in the eyes of at least one MHA, racist overtones.
The result was exactly what the government wanted — closure of a marathon debate on new access to information legislation that had dragged on for three days.
In a sense, though, it was also what the opposing MHAs wanted: the government shutting down debate on laws that would all but shut down the public’s right to know.
The catalyst for Wednesday’s brawl was a CBC story that quoted an expert on international right-to-know laws.
Toby Mendel, of the Centre for Law and Democracy, told CBC’s David Cochrane the proposed bill would rank Newfoundland behind a number of developing countries, including Ethiopia, Mexico, Nicaragua, Bulgaria, Guatemala and Uganda.
What the CBC story did not mention was that all G8 nations, including Canada, also rank behind these countries. And while their access laws may be liberal in spirit, many of them have shaky records with regards to human rights. (Uganda has tabled a bill that includes the death penalty for homosexual activity.)
One might expect government members to take offence at the global comparison.
But Wednesday’s spectacle was beyond the pale.
First, there was Justice Minister Felix Collins taking great umbrage at ranking Newfoundland behind such countries as “Moldova, wherever the hell that is,” and the others listed in the CBC report.
Collins’ remarks, along with ensuing shouts and taunts across the floor, prompted NDP Leader Lorraine Michael to condemn the “essence of racism” she was witnessing.
That’s when government House leader Jerome Kennedy jumped to his feet and declared an end to the shouting match.
Michael was forced to apologize, but Kennedy had already seized the opportunity.
“When the comments are made by the leader of a party that the minister of Justice is racist, it’s time to stop,” he told The Telegram’s James McLeod afterwards.
Throughout the night, politicians and journalists exchanged comments via Twitter. Cochrane defended his story, and invited two Tory MHAs to appear on his talk show, “On Point.”
At one point, Kennedy quoted a tweet by McLeod, sparking another question about entering such a source of information into the official record.
In short, it was a circus — one that won’t wear well on any of the politicians.
But the high-octane final act was oddly fitting for regressive legislation that may well leave this government teetering on a high-wire, without a net.