Documents shrouded in secrecy - N.L. government least transparent in the country on cabinet decisions

James McLeod jmcleod@thetelegram.com
Published on February 23, 2013
Andrew Parsons
— Telegram file photo

The Newfoundland and Labrador government appears to be more secretive than any other provincial government in Canada, based on certain documents it refuses to let the public see.

In fact, according to one Memorial University professor who studies politics and government, current government policy when it comes to cabinet decisions is so restrictive it calls into question whether we live in a democratic society.

The critical documents in question are called “orders in council,” and in every other province in Canada, they’re publicly available in one form or another.

But after more than two weeks of trying to get a straight answer from the Newfoundland and Labrador government, The Telegram was unable to determine whether citizens in this province have the same rights.

An order in council is a formal decision of cabinet, which the lieutenant-governor signs off on. It is a legally binding document, and has almost the same status as a piece of legislation.

The orders only contain the decision of cabinet; they do not in any way give a reason for the decision, or reveal the deliberations of cabinet that led to the final order.

The federal government posts all orders in council online, as do most provincial governments.

A few provinces have websites that direct citizens as to who to call, or what office to visit, to view copies of the orders in council.

But no such information exists on the Newfoundland and Labrador government website.

When The Telegram filed an access to information request for orders in council in 2011, several documents were either partially or totally censored by government officials.

 

The Telegram first inquired Feb. 7 with communications officials in Executive Council on how a citizen would go about getting copies of orders in council.

A day later, we were told the question should be directed to Minister Keith Hutchings who is responsible for the Office of Public Engagement, which takes in Access to Information and Protection of Privacy legislation.

When The Telegram spoke to Hutchings Feb. 14 — a week after the initial query was made — he said he didn’t know whether orders in council are publicly available documents in Newfoundland and Labrador.

Hutchings directed The Telegram to the cabinet secretariat — which falls under Executive Council, the department The Telegram originally contacted.

“I can’t clarify that,” he said. “If you’ve made a request to cabinet secretariat and they've turned you down, that’s the answer to your question.”

The Telegram made a request early this week for copies of several orders in council — including the ones that were blacked out in the 2011 access to information request — and several days later, we have still not received any documents from the cabinet secretariat.

An official sent an email to The Tele­gram saying something would be provided early next week.

Hutchings said some of the orders could only be released based on the restrictions of the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act; since the government amended that law in June, it has been widely criticized as one of the most restrictive access to information laws in the country.

 

Memorial University political science professor Kelly Blidook seemed a bit flabbergasted.

He said in the structure of government, an order in council is basically equivalent to a law, and the idea that it might not be public is problematic.

“It’s laws. There can’t be a limitation on which citizens get to know which laws are in place. It just sounds so weird to me,” he said. “The law has to be available to everybody, and it has to treat everybody in an equal manner.”

Blidook said one of the fundamental principles of a democratic society, going all the way back to the Magna Carta, is the idea that everyone is equal under the law — the notion that certain legally binding orders of government would only be available to some citizens but not other people seems to contradict that.

“That only occurs in undemocratic systems,” he said. “As a citizen, I get to know what the laws are, right?”

But if orders in council are currently kept secret by the government, that’s not necessarily anything new.

David Vardy, who was clerk of the Executive Council from 1978 to 1985, said back in his day, they were not public documents.

“It wasn’t a big issue. I think it was just accepted at the time that orders in council were confidential, and that was that,” he said, but added he doesn’t think that should still be the case.

“I think it reflects, sort of, an antiquated approach to government — a very protective, secretive approach.”

 

Liberal MHA Andrew Parsons said the fact the government will not make the documents public further confirms his impression that the government is committed to holding back as much information as possible.

“It’s the most secretive government in the history of this province,” he said.

“It’s one thing to make their decisions under cover of night, but now they’re not even going to tell you what they’re doing?”

 

jmcleod@thetelegram.com

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