Ac­cess to in­for­ma­tion changes are bad: Par­sons

The Compass - - OPINION -

Dear Edi­tor,

Bill 29 im­poses new and op­pres­sive rules on the re­lease of gov­ern­ment in­for­ma­tion to the pub­lic. Gov­ern­ment claims that the au­di­tor gen­eral will have the same pow­ers to ex­am­ine fi­nan­cial records as he did be­fore. In his last re­port, the AG de­tailed gov­ern­ment’s suc­cess­ful ef­forts to hide doc­u­ments from his of­fice.

Ac­cord­ing to the AG, this re­fusal flew in the face of past prac­tice and he in­sisted th­ese doc­u­ments were needed to com­plete his work.

Un­der the new rules, that re­fusal has been en­shrined in law and the AG will never be per­mit­ted to view them.

In 2010 and 2011, the Of­fice of the In­for­ma­tion and Pri­vacy Com­mis­sioner (OIPC) took the gov­ern­ment to court be­cause, in his view, the gov­ern­ment abused the right of solic­i­tor-client priv­i­lege by stretch­ing it to ar­eas of in­for­ma­tion to which it did not ap­ply. Gov­ern­ment lost that case in a unan­i­mous judge­ment by our Court of Ap­peal.

Gov­ern­ment over­ruled that judge­ment through new rules in Bill 29, thereby stretch­ing the no­tion of so­lic­i­tor­client priv­i­lege for their own ends and trump­ing the learned opinion of the high­est court of the prov­ince.

The ex­cuse for this ac­tion was as­sert­ing “by re­struc­tur­ing the law and mak­ing it right we didn’t over­ride the Supreme Court, we just set it right.”

While the gov­ern­ment claims that the OIPC re­mains un­touched by Bill 29, many new classes of doc­u­ments have been cre­ated which the OIPC is pro­hib­ited from re­view­ing.

There are more kinds of dis­putes which must be ap­pealed di­rectly to the courts, by­pass­ing the OIPC.

This will dis­cour­age the pur­suit of cases sim­ply due to the over­whelm­ing le­gal costs of lit­i­ga­tion.

Pre­vi­ously, the re­lease of cabi­net doc­u­ments was sub­ject to a test to de­ter­mine if they re­flected the sub­stance of the cabi­net dis­cus­sion.

Un­der the new rules, cabi­net pa­pers will in­clude all kinds of ma­te­ri­als in­clud­ing doc­u­ments never ever ex­am­ined by a cabi­net min­is­ter.

In the de­bate, the gov­ern­ment claimed that count­less num­bers of ac­cess to in­for­ma­tion re­quests some­how blocked up gov­ern­ment. Yet CBC found that there were not thou­sands of re­quests.

In fact, last year the 15 de­part­ments and over 500 pub­lic bod­ies re­ceived an av­er­age of only 11 per week. Oth­ers agree Mean­while, out­side ob­servers have ex­am­ined the law and found it a re­gres­sive step back­ward.

Duff Conacher heads Democ­racy Watch, Canada’s lead­ing cit­i­zen group ad­vo­cat­ing demo­cratic re­form, gov­ern­ment ac­count­abil­ity and cor­po­rate re­spon­si­bil­ity. He noted: “There are more loop­holes, more ex­emp­tions to dis­clo­sure of in­for­ma­tion and they are weak­en­ing en­force­ment as well. When you do this, it’s a dou­ble whammy that leads to ex­ces­sive, un­jus­ti­fi­able se­crecy at a greater level.”

No doubt we need a bal­ance be­tween the pub­lic’s right to know and gov­ern­ment’s need to keep pri­vate per­sonal in­for­ma­tion and cabi­net de­lib­er­a­tions.

But Bill 29 tips that bal­ance hard on the side of se­crecy. Premier Kathy Dun­derdale likes to say she is com­mit­ted to open­ness, trans­parency and ac­count­able. If nothing else, this de­bate has de­mol­ished this claim for­ever.

Now we all know that this gov­ern­ment is com­mit­ted to se­crecy, clo­sure and ob­scu­rity.

An­drew Par­sons is the Lib­eral MHA for Bur­geo-La Poile and the op­po­si­tion jus­tice critic.

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