Today is an unwholesome little anniversary: it’s been a year since Bill 29 was passed and dramatically changed this province’s access to information legislation. Documents that used to be available as a matter of course overnight became cabinet secrets. The legislation was roundly decried, but the government of Kathy Dunderdale steamrollered ahead despite a filibuster in the House of Assembly.
A year in, it’s obvious that the law has had its desired effect, closing the door on the public’s right to know, and the current administration clearly has no intention of changing that. Perhaps it would be timely to have this province’s two opposition parties put precisely on the record what parts of the legislation they would commit — in writing — to changing, should they form government in the future. Some places where there could be a clear commitment for change?
• The access commissioner should be able to order the release of documents, instead of only being allow to “recommend” their release.
• All claims that documents fall under exemptions because they are cabinet documents or because they are legal advice should be reviewable by the commissioner — and the commissioner should be able to examine the documents themselves, instead of being expected to take the word of cabinet ministers that records should be excluded. After all, the commissioner is an officer of the House of Assembly, and should be able to be trusted to maintain both confidentiality and oversight.
• There should also be a change to third-party documents. Businesses that want to do business with or get assistance from government should recognize that they are asking for support from taxpayers, and should be willing to have the details of their government involvement made public. Companies that do not wish to be forthcoming with the taxpayers who are paying the bills can choose not to seek assistance.
• No Crown corporation should benefit from the ability to simply exempt itself from the rules that cover any government agency.
• The definition of what constitutes a cabinet document should be narrowed to documents actually presented to the province’s cabinet — the current definition, which includes everything from “a discussion paper, policy analysis, proposal, advice or briefing material, including all factual and background material prepared for the cabinet” to “a record used for or which reflects communications or discussions among ministers on matters relating to the making of government decisions or the formulation of government policy,” is just too open to abuse. After all, the legislation is so broad now that it blocks access, as a cabinet secret, to a “discontinued cabinet record,” which is “a cabinet record … the original intent of which was to inform the cabinet process, but which is neither a supporting cabinet record nor an official cabinet record” and a “supporting cabinet record” which is a “cabinet record … which informs the cabinet process, but which is not an official cabinet record.”
The list of possible changes could go on — but the point is a simple one. It would be good to hear a commitment from individual parties to put the original goal of the legislation first: “to make public bodies more accountable to the public and to protect personal privacy by … giving the public a right of access to records” with only “limited exceptions.” Right now, thanks to Bill 29, the balance has tipped towards restricting access.
Let’s hear what the opposition parties would do differently.