“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”
— George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950), Irish playwright
In a wide-ranging speech to the Progressive Conservative faithful in Gander last Saturday morning, Premier Kathy Dunderdale talked about what motivates the members of her party.
“Being open, being accessible, being transparent — look, I’m going to tell you, in terms of this party, in terms of our cabinet and our caucus, we have one agenda. One agenda. And that is to do what is right for the people of Newfoundland and Labrador. It’s why you’re prepared to have the arms and legs torn off you, publicly.”
Well, it isn’t just politicians who get their limbs ripped off.
The premier didn’t refer to me by name, but it was certainly me she was talking about when she said I didn’t know what I was talking about when I wrote about Bill 29, which amended the access to information act.
This summer, I wrote a column giving examples of how certain information would not have come to light without access to information legislation. Afterwards, the justice minister wrote to The Telegram to say that I was wrong.
The following week, July 7, I wrote another column. According to the premier, in it I said: “well, maybe the examples I used weren’t good.”
But that isn’t what I wrote — this is:
“(Justice Minister Felix) Collins may disagree with the examples I used in a column to emphasize why more transparency than Bill 29 provides is necessary, but in doing so, he misses the broader point.
“It doesn’t matter so much what the public was able to find out using access to information legislation in the past; what matters is what it won’t be able to find out in the present, thanks to a draconian new law that no one save the governing Tories thought was necessary.”
Now, the premier can speak at a Tory convention and be sure that whatever she says will get a warm response. And, certainly, columnists are fair game.
But the key word here is fair.
By all means, take issue with what I wrote, but don’t put words in my mouth.
I beg to differ
I will continue to disagree with the premier when it comes to Bill 29.
She says the legislation is not more restrictive than it was before. Well, it’s pretty hard to buy that argument when the new rules have restricted the powers of the privacy commissioner.
You see, the government didn’t follow all of the recommendations made by lawyer John Cummings in his review of the legislation.
Here are two examples of that.
Cummings thought the privacy commissioner should have to give approval before access requests are rejected for being frivolous, trivial or made in bad faith. The government ignored that advice.
Based on a submission from the privacy commissioner’s office, Cummings also recommended that the privacy commissioner’s term of office, the shortest of any privacy commissioner in the country — two years with the potential for a two-year extension — be extended to at least a five-year term.
“The commissioner’s office expressed concern that this short term of office may create a perception that the commissioner is beholden to a particular government for his/her continued employment …,” Cummings wrote. “I agree with the reasoning in the commissioner’s office submission.”
The government ignored that advice, too.
During her speech in Gander, the premier derided a report that called this province’s information legislation “worse than the legislation in Third-World countries.”
“(W)hat that report failed to point out, though,” she said, “was that our legislation is the second-best in Canada — better than the federal government, better than 11 of our sister provinces, better than freedom information in the United Sates, better than freedom of information in Europe, better than freedom of information in most of the civilized world. Now, b’ys, that’s not a bad place to be.”
In fact, both assessments of the legislation were made by the same organization, the Nova Scotia-based Centre for Law and Democracy.
When it gave Newfoundland and Labrador a second-best rating, it had only ranked five jurisdictions in the country at that point.
Since then, the organization has ranked all 14 jurisdictions in Canada. This province came third, behind Manitoba and British Columbia. Tied for last place were the federal government, Alberta and New Brunswick.
But as the centre noted in issuing its latest report card last month, “All 14 jurisdictions fall seriously short in terms of protecting the right to information. … It is time for Canadians to stand up and protest against this miserable performance.”
Here’s what it said about this province:
“The amendments to Newfoundland’s Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act contained in Bill 29 significantly weakened the legal framework by expanding the exceptions regime, limiting the power and efficacy of the information and privacy commissioner, and excluding practically all cabinet documents from disclosure.
“At a time when the right to information is on the march around the world, Newfoundland’s … legislative changes present a dramatic step backwards for that jurisdiction.”
It’s interesting that the premier didn’t mention that assessment.
When it comes to freedom of information, she may think that being among the best of a sorry lot is “not a bad place to be.”
But it’s not good enough for me, or for many people in this province.
Pam Frampton is a columnist and The Telegram’s associate managing editor. She can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: pam_frampton