Nalcor, MUN, private citizen defend Bill 29 provisions

James McLeod jmcleod@thetelegram.com
Published on August 21, 2014

As the consultations on access to information wind down, Lynn Hammond offered the strongest defence of Bill 29, and the justifications for keeping government information secret from the public.

 

The committee studying the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (ATIPPA) is made up of former premier Clyde Wells, retired journalist Doug Letto and former federal privacy commissioner Jennifer Stoddart.

They've heard presentations from political parties, private citizens, industry groups, experts and journalists, including the Telegram.

The majority of the presentations have argued the access to information system isn't working, and the 2012 amendments brought in through Bill 29 allow the government to keep too much information secret from the public.

But on Wednesday, representatives from Nalcor Energy and Memorial University argued in favour of keeping some of the key changes brought in through Bill 29.

Hammond, a longtime political staffer and former director of communications for premier Kathy Dunderdale, went even farther, arguing it's important to keep all internal discussions of policy by bureaucrats secret from public disclosure.

She also argued cabinet secrecy needs to remain so complete that the independent information and privacy commissioner can't review the documents to make sure politicians aren't abusing their power.

Earlier this week, Wells concluded that the government had abused its power in the past by improperly keeping documents secret by claiming they were legal advice.

Since Bill 29, the information and privacy commissioner can't review legal advice or cabinet documents to determine whether the government is improperly keeping documents secret.

Hammond argued the government should routinely disclose certain kinds of information, but if people are allowed to see unfiltered internal communications, it might give them a skewed view of government activities, and it might place a chill on civil servants.

“Is it critical that public servants are able to provide their advice and recommendations to ministers openly and freely without the concern that it's then later going to have to be debated in the public sphere,” she said. “A collection of emails may be interesting, but it may not necessarily be in the public interest, especially if it creates a whole other level of discussion around an issue that's not really focused on a goal.”

Hammond asked the ATIPPA committee if she could do her presentation behind closed doors, but she was told it wasn't acceptable. After her presentation, she declined to answer questions from reporters.

The presentations from Memorial University and Nalcor Energy also argued in favour of keeping key provisions of Bill 29.

A common theme throughout the day was that despite the past evidence of abuse around legal advice, government agencies want the access to information review to keep the status quo where the information and privacy commissioner cannot provide independent review of many types of documents to determine if they're acting in good faith.

Memorial University, for example, wants the law to stay the way it is so teaching materials and research information is completely off limits from the information and privacy commissioner.

Nalcor Energy wants to keep the special power it holds now, which can force the commissioner to agree with the corporation that documents are commercially sensitive if the CEO and board of directors order him to.

The energy corporation also argued to keep the provision which allows public bodies to dismiss “frivolous and vexatious” requests for information.

Memorial also floated an idea where any opinion expressed by somebody should be considered personal information, and therefore off limits from public disclosure.

Hammond, a senior political staffer, said she has sat in on cabinet committee meetings. At one point, she said she wanted to give specific examples to support her arguments about cabinet secrecy, but couldn't say anything because she is bound by cabinet secrecy.

Wednesday was the last day of presentations from the public and government agencies.

Today, information and privacy commissioner Ed Ring will make final comments, before the public hearings wrap up.

The final report from the committee is expected sometime this fall.

 

jmcleod@thetelegram.com

Twitter: TelegramJames