Loving words

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Ah, words. You’ve got to love them, in all their twisty turns and weaselly wonder. Take Kevin O’Brien, minister of Municipal Affairs and the minister responsible for Fire and Emergency Services — Newfoundland and Labrador.

On Tuesday he was in Burin on this year’s “here’s a fire truck” tour of the province, and here’s what he had to say: “Through Budget 2013, our government continues to address the surplus of older firefighting vehicles around the province and invest in new, state-of-the-art equipment in communities that need it most.”

That’s right: it’s not a shortage, it’s a surplus. This province’s towns don’t have too few state-of-the-art fire vehicles, they just have too many old ones.

But when it really comes to twisty language, you can’t do better that the myriad of reasons that governments use to block access to information. And you can’t do better than a panel of judges on the Federal Appeal Court to cut through the verbiage and get right to the point.

Here’s the short version: a quartet of Alberta wildlife groups are concerned that the sage-grouse is losing more and more of its traditional range. In fact, there are fewer than 100 of the birds left in the wild. Oil and gas development, among other things, is damaging remaining breeding areas.

The groups wanted more information on whether the federal government was moving to make an emergency order to protect the remaining habitat.

The federal environment minister refused to talk about the process, claiming cabinet secrecy.

As the judges put it in their decision, the process has “only been made worse by the minister of the environment’s position that he is under no obligation to say if a decision has been made or, if a decision has been made, what it is.”

Why? Well, the government argues that “because cabinet decision-making process is engaged in the decision to issue an emergency order, at this stage of the process in this case, it is not possible to reveal whether the minister has made or will make a recommendation to the governor in council for an emergency order to be issued.”

Not even as evidence in court, apparently.

The judges had a different view: “It is important to recognize that there is a distinction between confidentiality and immunity from having to produce a document or a communication for the purposes of litigation. While confidentiality is a necessary element of a privileged communication, confidentiality alone does not confer privilege or immunity. In this context, the fact that cabinet deliberations are confidential means that a claim of immunity can be advanced.”

The problem the judges go on to point out is that cabinet gets involved only if the minister decides to seek an emergency order. If the minister doesn’t — or hasn’t — there’s no cabinet protection for the information.

The result? The judges say the whole issue has gone on long enough: “The minister will communicate his position unequivocally. … It should then be possible to move this matter forward without further delay.”

To paraphrase Minister O’Brien, it’s not that we have too little transparency and accountability in this country — it’s just that we have a surplus of secrecy.

Organizations: Fire and Emergency Services

Geographic location: Burin, Alberta

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