01 October 2010

Freedom from Information Week: the colour of invisibility

As labradore notes, at least one member of a Reform-based Conservative Party administration likes to use purple files to denote sensitive material to be given special attention as part of an access to information request.

Not surprisingly, another Reform-based Conservative Party in power likes to use purple files to denote sensitive information.  And, as regular readers will recall, that sensitive filing system officially does not exist.

Even though it does.

And the Premier admits it exists, but he refuses to release the information.

Because it officially doesn't exist.

When it comes to public access to government information the public has a legal right to obtain, it seems that purple is the colour of invisibility. Whatever these two Conservative administrations are afraid of, there's no doubt that fear lies at the heart of their obsession with secrecy.

That's why the Premier told reporters that if he had to release information people were looking for he'd "be outta here". Lest new readers get confused at this point or think the requests were intrusive, understand that one of the requests the Premier found unbelievably intrusive was one that asked for all his public speeches as Premier.

One big difference between the two Conservative approaches to secrecy, though is in the role played by political staffers.  In Ottawa, political involvement in the access to information process is considered controversial.

In St. John's, bureaucrats will testify under oath that it is perfectly acceptable for responses to information requests to be dictated by politicians and political staffers. Interestingly enough, while reporters covered that testimony as it it contradicted other claims about political interference, the reality is that the testimony suggested the level of political interference was routine.

But still, there are signs of sanity.  Your humble e-scribbler had a pleasant experience this past week.  One access co-ordinator in one department answered a simple inquiry with a simple answer.  Plus, she did so promptly and professionally.  Compare that to the refusal of three other more senior officials to even think about the same request and the lengthy delay it took to get them to refuse to provide simple information.

That's the difference between a culture of politically-driven secrecy  - call it a purple culture - and one that shows a respect for the law and for the public's right to know. Hats off to a public servant who does an honour to her chosen career.

What a fitting way to mark Right to Know week.

- srbp -