Newfoundland opposition filibusters bill seeking to restrict access to information
Ottawa isn’t home to the only political marathon taking place in Canada right now. Newfoundland’s 11 opposition members of the House of Assembly are set to filibuster Bill 29, which has reached the committee stage of debate after an all-night debate that saw the bill make it through a second reading in the House.
Bill 29 would amend Newfoundland’s Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act to make large categories of government documents secret and has been called “draconian” and “the official secrets act” by opposition MHAs. As CBC NL reports, the bill would “allow the provincial government to keep ministerial briefings secret, ignore requests for information that cabinet ministers deem to be ‘frivolous,’ and bar the auditor general from a wider array of records.”
The majority Progressive Conservative government, which campaigned on a platform of government openness nine years ago before former Premier Danny Williams was elected, says it made some of the proposed amendments to ATIPPA based on an independent review January 2011 report on the legislation from lawyer John Cummings. CTV News has reported that 16 of the 33 recommendations in the report have been included in Bill 29.
Opposition leader Dwight Ball said in the House that the proposed legislation, however, goes “well beyond the recommendations of the Cummings report.”
NTV News legislative reporter Michael Connors explains that the Cummings report recommended an independent officer of the House – the information commissioner Ed Ring – define what sorts of requests can be ignored or deemed as “frivolous.” But instead, the proposed legislation leaves that discretion to cabinet ministers. This “raises concerns that information requests could be ignored for political reasons,” Connors says.
In a news conference, Justice Minister Felix Collins said that this wouldn’t be the case. “Every public body has a staff that does this. They’ll be subject to criteria and direction provided,” Collins said. “To give all of these things to the public commissioner – it would flood the commissioner for one thing.”
Collins did say that the commissioner has the right to review all of the decisions.
Under the new legislation, cabinet minister briefing notes — which NTV says are popular requests made by journalists and the release of which CBC says creates a “chill in the government” — will be protected for five years. Formal research reports or audit reports could be withheld if they are deemed incomplete by the head of the public body unless no progress has been made on them for more than three years. Consultations or deliberations involving public officers or employees can also be withheld.
Bill 29 has reached the committee stage of the debate, and the House will take part in whole. Unless the government moves a “closure motion,” the debate could go on indefinitely, as The Telegram has noted. In the committee stage, MHAs may only speak for 10 minutes at a time, but they are permitted to speak as many times as they wish.
Opposition MHAs have indicated that they will draw the debate out as long as possible.