08 July 2007

Telegram: Legislature exempt from FOI law until after election

The Telegram
p. A1

Legislature exempt from FOI law until after election
Quiet addition to Green report

Rob Antle
The Telegram

The House of Assembly has quietly exempted itself from the province's freedom of information laws until after the October general election.

And The Telegram has learned there is confusion over whether taxpayers will be able to access any House information generated prior to that Oct. 9 implementation date.

Chief Justice Derek Green recommended in his "Rebuilding Confidence" report that the House be covered by FOI laws.

Those laws allow members of the public to obtain government documents and information.

The legislature is currently exempt - a situation Green suggested played a contributing role in the constituency spending scandal.

It will remain that way for at least a few more months.

The delay in FOI access was added without fanfare to the text of Green's suggested legislation, passed June 14. There was no news release announcing it. And figuring it out requires stitching together a number of subsections of two pieces of law.

Government House Leader Tom Rideout defended the decision, and the transparency with which it was made.

Rideout characterized it as not being a delay at all, as Green did not cite a specific implementation date. The FOI decision was made in consultation with the chief justice, Rideout said.

He denied an inaccurate impression was left with the public, and said it was unnecessary issue a news release about the later date.

"There was no recommendation (from) Green as to when it came into effect, so nobody, including myself, read anything into this," Rideout said Friday.

"Since Green didn't say the act comes into effect today, we, in consultation with him, said what can come into effect today comes into effect today, what needs time to come into effect tomorrow comes into effect tomorrow, and tomorrow is Oct. 9, 2007."

Rideout said he thought everyone was aware of that date for certain elements of the Green report's implementation.

The chief justice was not available for comment Friday.

Here is how the FOI delay became law.

On June 14, the legislature unanimously passed Bill 33, the act implementing Green's stringent new accountability, ethics and spending rules for the House.

The delay is tucked away in Sec. 72 (2) (b) of Bill 33. It simply notes that Sec. 67 of the legislation will be put off until after Oct. 9.

Sec. 67 concerns amendments to the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act.

Those sections of the existing FOI law deal with the public's right to access legislative documents.

It is unclear whether or not the FOI provisions will be retroactive.

Rideout said it is his understanding that they will.

But House Speaker Harvey Hodder suggested the new commission of politicians set up to govern House affairs will decide. "That has not been clarified," Hodder told The Telegram. "The intent of the legislation is that it would be on a go-forward basis."

When the new FOI law was brought into effect in 2005, however, it did apply retroactively.

But maybe not so for the House, the Speaker suggested. "To what extent it can be retroactive before Oct. 9, that has not been discussed in my presence," Hodder said.

The delay in FOI provisions is in addition to another last-second amendment that put off tough new spending rules for MHAs until after Oct. 9.

Internet blogger Ed Hollett unearthed the existence of that information two weeks ago.

There was also no news release announcing that delay.

Bill 33, including the amendments, whooshed through the House in less than two days, just before the legislature broke for the summer.