Wells disappointed at public's disinterest in ATIPPA hearings

James McLeod jmcleod@thetelegram.com
Published on August 19, 2014
Clyde Wells

As a summer of public hearings into access to information in Newfoundland and Labrador winds down, former premier Clyde Wells mused Monday morning that maybe people are satisfied with the system as it currently exists.
Wells is chairing a three-member panel studying the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (ATIPPA). So far it has had 63 people contact it about weighing in, along with more than 100 civil servants who work on access to information responding to an anonymous questionnaire.

But Wells was disappointed Monday that more people haven't logged on to the review committee's website - www.parcnl.ca - to fill out an online questionnaire.

"It may mean on the whole, apart from what some people see as missteps, people are generally satisfied with the way the access to information and protection of privacy legislation is working," Wells said.

"Although we've heard some expression of dissatisfaction - some of them very substantial - but it would appear from the lack of response, despite our shameless efforts at trying to generate interest, that the level of concern may not be as great as we thought."

Of the people who have presented to the committee so far, the message has overwhelmingly been that the current access to information system is too restrictive, and allows far too many avenues for government to keep documents secret from the public.

On Monday, Suzanne Legault, the information commissioner of Canada, added her voice to the chorus, saying the law as it's written is problematic.

"The changes brought forward by Bill 29 have expanded the scope of key exceptions to disclosure under the act - such as the exceptions for cabinet confidences, policy advice and recommendations, and business interests.

Legault also argued that freedom of information should mean the information is, in fact, free.

The fees associated with access to information can create a barrier which prevents people from getting the documents they're looking for; on the other hand, Legault pointed out that last year the government only took in $7,523.95 in fees.

"If you're looking at efficiency of government, I think I would bet at least five dollars that there is more money spent in trying to deal with whether or not fees should be charged," she said.

In the afternoon, representatives from the CBC made a presentation to the committee. The Telegram has also made submissions, along with private citizens, political parties, and information and privacy advocates.

The committee will continue hearings this week, with Public Engagement Minister Sandy Collins making a presentation this morning.

Representatives for Nalcor Energy and Memorial University are on the agenda for later in the week.

The committee, which also includes former federal privacy commissioner Jennifer Stoddart and retired journalist Doug Letto, will accept written submissions from the public until the end of August.

It is expected to provide a full report with recommendations to the government this fall.