By Andrew Parsons
Bill 29 imposes new and oppressive rules on the release of government information to the public.
Government claims that the auditor general will have the same powers to examine financial records as he did before.
In his last report, the AG detailed government’s successful efforts to hide documents from his office.
According to the AG, this refusal flew in the face of past practice and he insisted these documents were needed to complete his work.
Under the new rules, that refusal has been enshrined in law and the AG will never be permitted to view them.
In 2010 and 2011, the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner (OIPC) took the government to court because, in his view, the government abused the right of solicitor-client privilege by stretching it to areas of information to which it did not apply.
Government lost that case in a unanimous judgement by our Court of Appeal.
Government overruled that judgement through new rules in Bill 29, thereby stretching the notion of solicitor-client privilege for their own ends and trumping the learned opinion of the highest court of the province.
The excuse for this action was asserting “by restructuring the law and making it right we didn’t override the Supreme Court, we just set it right.”
While the government claims that the OIPC remains untouched by Bill 29, many new classes of documents have been created which the OIPC is prohibited from reviewing.
There are more kinds of disputes which must be appealed directly to the courts, bypassing the OIPC.
This will discourage the pursuit of cases simply due to the overwhelming legal costs of litigation.
Previously, the release of cabinet documents was subject to a test to determine if they reflected the substance of the cabinet discussion.
Under the new rules, cabinet papers will include all kinds of materials including documents never ever examined by a cabinet minister.
In the debate, the government claimed that countless numbers of access to information requests somehow blocked up government.
Yet CBC found that there were not thousands of requests.
In fact, last year the 15 departments and over 500 public bodies received an average of only 11 per week.
Meanwhile, outside observers have examined the law and found it a regressive step backward.
Duff Conacher heads Democracy Watch, Canada’s leading citizen group advocating democratic reform, government accountability and corporate responsibility. He noted: “There are more loopholes, more exemptions to disclosure of information and they are weakening enforcement as well. When you do this, it’s a double whammy that leads to excessive, unjustifiable secrecy at a greater level.”
No doubt we need a balance between the public’s right to know and government’s need to keep private personal information and cabinet deliberations.
But Bill 29 tips that balance hard on the side of secrecy. Premier Kathy Dunderdale likes to say she is committed to openness, transparency and accountable. If nothing else, this debate has demolished this claim forever.
Now we all know that this government is committed to secrecy, closure and obscurity.
Andrew Parsons is the Liberal MHA
for Burgeo-La Poile and
the opposition justice critic.