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Inquiry asks for all documents related to Muskrat Files

Justice Minister Andrew Parsons (left) and deputy justice minister Todd Stanley speak about proposed amendments to the Public Inquiries Act at the Confederation Building on Tuesday afternoon.
Justice Minister Andrew Parsons (left) and deputy justice minister Todd Stanley speak about proposed amendments to the Public Inquiries Act at the Confederation Building on Tuesday afternoon. - Joe Gibbons

Bill 35 allows government to hand over all information, but still maintain privilege by preventing some from becoming public

Perhaps the largest access to information request in the province’s history means the Department of Justice has to change disclosure rules leading up to the Muskrat Falls Inquiry.

The Commission of Inquiry Respecting the Muskrat Falls Project, helmed by Justice Richard LeBlanc, has requested essentially all documentation from the government regarding the project since July 2006.

The request has proven a dilemma for the government. Typically, documents given to inquiries are then made public. While the Muskrat Falls project is still being constructed and Nalcor is very much an active entity, certain documents should remain privileged to prevent any disclosure that could prove harmful to the government or Nalcor’s business interest, Justice Minister Andrew Parsons says.

Under the current rules, the government would have had to comb through every document requested by LeBlanc related to the project to determine whether or not it was privileged information. Parsons says the government quickly realized just how big a task was at hand.

“There was a real realization amongst departments about just how huge this was. When you think about any document basically with the word Muskrat Falls in it since 2006, it’s ridiculous in size, but necessary,” he said.

In the interest of giving over the documents quickly, the Justice Department has put forth Bill 35, which was given its second reading in the House of Assembly on Tuesday.

The amendment to the Public Inquiries Act would allow the government to pass over all the documentation up front, without reviewing for privilege. Any documents that the inquiry wants to be made public would then be presented to the government, with a discussion about whether or not it can be publicly released. Any impasse reached between the commission and the government could then be settled in court.

It’s expected Nalcor will also have the power to vet any documents the inquiry wants publicly released.

Deputy Minister of Justice Todd Stanley says he doesn’t expect the vetting process would result in less information in the final report submitted by LeBlanc.

“He’ll be able to tell the story … without disclosing all the background documents. That’s exactly how we’d expect that to work,” said Stanley.

“We’re giving him the documents so he can tell the story that he needs to tell, but we have privilege over the documents for other purposes.”

Parsons says the goal is to get the information into the hands of LeBlanc as quickly as possible.

“We didn’t call a commission of inquiry to limit the information. We called the commission of inquiry with pretty detailed terms of reference because people asking questions wanted answers,” said Parsons.

“That being said, we don’t want information that’s not relevant, that is prejudicial to us in other ways to be released and have government — and in the end taxpayers — suffer because of it. This is a way to expediting and making sure the commission gets all the information.”

david.maher@thetelegram.com

Twitter: DavidMaherNL

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