At the risk of flogging a dead horse, it seems timely to report that the chickens are coming home to roost when it comes to Bill 29.
Perhaps that’s enough animal imagery — but in some ways, it’s apt, because people may not be aware of just what a beast the Tory government’s changes to the province’s access law have created.
The provincial government has promised a review of the controversial bill, but, as is the case with much legislation, the actual effects of the law are only slowly being felt, as access to information requests make their way through the often-ponderous system.
And one of the things that’s becoming clear is that Bill 29 is allowing companies to block access to information such as the results of a public tender. In fact, the amended act is being used to remove otherwise publicly available information from view.
As The Telegram reported several weeks ago, the provincial government, citing corporate confidentiality requirements, has started blocking the release of the cost of some goods and services. Want to know how much the province was charged for rock removal and trenching at a school site in Paradise? That bill’s confidential, to protect the interests of the construction company involved — forget that we’re paying for it.
Want to know the hourly rate that the province pays out-of-province lawyers? It’s confidential, the government says: “These rates are sometimes negotiable, and publicly disclosing the hourly rates of these solicitors could possibly compromise their position in negotiating future rates with other parties.”
In the past, that information would have been released, unless the companies involved could prove they were being harmed. Bill 29 changed the rules.
Tuesday, CBC News reported on a court case that’s using Bill 29 to try and prevent Memorial University from releasing the price it pays for office supplies. Two stationery supply companies are fighting over the MUN contract. Dicks and Company argues that Staples is deliberately selling some items below cost in order to win the contract — losses it makes up on lucrative “non-contracted” stationery sales that come with the contracted ones. Staples argues its prices are a competitive secret, and therefore protected by Bill 29.
A judge will have to figure out how far Bill 29 reaches.
Also Tuesday, the access commissioner reported on another access complaint where a business was trying to argue that public tenders shouldn’t actually be public — because their corporate concerns were more important than open and accountable government.
The commissioner rejected the argument, putting things bluntly: “Further, when bidding on a job with a public body, funded by public funds, the bidding process is subject to the Public Tender Act. Section 11 of that Act states that: ‘Tenders for public works, goods or services and leases called under this Act shall be opened in public at the prescribed time and place.’ Bid information then is assumed to not be confidential, as it is ‘public.’” The commissioner was even clearer in an earlier decision on the practice of withholding price information: “Prior to Bill 29, this type of information was available and it should still be available post-Bill 29.” Enough said.
It seems positively Orwellian that access to information legislation would be used to prevent the public from having the kind of access they previously guaranteed. War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength. Access is denial.
The review can’t come quickly enough.