19 December 2006

Signed, sealed, delivered and rammed

Let the people know the truth and the country is safe. We will keep the people of the province fully informed; there will be no secret documents.There will be no hidden agendas. If you and I know the facts then we will collectively decide the best course for the future...

That is what my platform is about: no hidden documents; no hidden agendas.

Danny Williams, Leader of the Opposition,
paraphrasing Abraham Lincoln in debate on the
Access to Information and Protection of Public Privacy Act,
House of Assembly, December 3, 2001.

How times have changed.

Premier Danny Williams will not allow the Auditor General to review certain documents presented to cabinet and related to the fibre optic deal. He defends his decision by pointing to the letter of the law.

This is not the first time Williams has demonstrated that the noble words delivered shortly after his election to the House of Assembly were not matched by his actions once he became Premier. A year into his administration, Williams rejected a request from The Telegram for access to polling conducted for his office out of public funds. He claimed the letter of the access to information law prevented their releases since they would reveal cabinet confidences.

He was proven wrong by a simple reading of the access act itself which explicitly stated that public opinion polling could not be withheld from disclosure. He was also proven wrong in a subsequent decision by the access and privacy commissioner.

In examining the Premier's latest in a long list of efforts to avoid public accountability for his actions in office, it is useful to go back to what Danny Williams argued from the opposition benches.

At that time, the current premier was in favour of open and largely unfettered access to information. He criticized provisions of the access legislation as having been "put in here as a shield to protect the government."

"The people of the province have a right to know what is going on...It [a deal or agreement] should not be signed, sealed and delivered and then rammed down their throats when it is all over."

His belief in openness and transparency appeared undeniable.

That was in 2001.

In November 2006, when faced with questions about the deal, the Progressive Conservative majority in the House of Assembly amended an opposition motion to read simply:

Therefore be it resolved that the House of Assembly, in the spirit of openness and accountability, ask the Auditor General, an independent Officer of the House of Assembly, to investigate all the details and circumstances of the fiber [sic] optic deal.

Note the simple word "all".

Given Premier Williams' position today that the Auditor General is prohibited by law from reviewing cabinet documents (including background reports, recommendations by officials etc), and given that the Premier and his colleagues were clearly familiar with the provisions of the access legislation when they voted in favour of the resolution calling on the Auditor General to review the fibre optic deal, one can only reasonably conclude that the Premier and the members of his caucus had no intention of allowing access to "all" details and circumstances.

What is truly curious about the Premier's position, though, is that the disclosure in this instance is limited to a single official of the House of Assembly in a very specific context. This is no ordinary official in the pantheon of Williams props. The Auditor General holds a revered status akin only to God himself; that is, when Williams wants to attack his own political enemies. Cabinet ministers are slaughter on the AG's word.

And while Danny Williams advocated unfettered information access for the lumpenproletariat - like your humble e-scribbler and you - only a few short years ago, Williams in this instance is denying his own deity the ability to have a confidential review of certain documents directly related to a controversial issue.

Think about that.

And it is not as thought individuals have not been given access to documents. Cabinet is quite able to disclose information based solely on its own discretion. Details of Hydro Corporation expenditures on the Lower Churchill were revealed in 2004, completely contrary to the access act. Cabinet has the legal ability to disclose certain information, at its discretion, and to restrict the subsequent disclosure.

In this case, the twin imperatives of cabinet confidentiality and the need to demonstrate that the fibre deal is "squeaky clean" can be easily balanced. That is, they could be balanced if the Premier was sincere.

By his own actions, evidently, he is not.

Or perhaps there is some other reason for the Premier's willingness to block the Auditor General's review.

It should not go unnoticed that in his news release the Premier drew attention to provisions of the access law that prevent "disclosure of Cabinet confidences and information harmful to law enforcement." In the release the Premier - and his publicist - paraphrased the act in describing cabinet confidences. There was no apparent need to mention the other provision of the act at all since - so far as we know - there is nothing in this Persona deal that is connected in any way to law enforcement. Why did the Premier mention it at all?

Sadly, we will not know, at least until a future administration appoints a public inquiry. Until then, we must be satisfied - according to Danny Williams' actions - with having this deal signed, sealed, and delivered.

For good measure, the Premier rammed the whole thing today but his destination was considerably lower than our throats.

It must be good to be da king, indeed.