25 September 2013

The Beast #nlpoli

This week, people across Canada who are interested in the public right to access government information mark a thing called Right to Know Week.

It’s a time to “raise awareness of an individual’s right to access government information, while promoting freedom of information as essential to both democracy and good governance.”

People who are genuinely interested in a healthy democracy and in the effective operation of our federal, provincial, and municipal governments support freedom of information. 

It’s that simple.

The public has “a right of access” in the words of the first provincial freedom of information law (1981).  In the 2002 access to information law that replaced the earlier Act, the word “right” appears no fewer than four times in the section that describes the purpose of the Act.

Section 7 says that the public has a right to access government records of all sorts,  a right to access information government has about them, and another right to have that information corrected if it is wrong.  The fourth reference to rights is in describing the limited exceptions to that right of access.

Note the word:  limited.  There are supposed to be limited exceptions to what information people can get.
Bill 29 changed all that.  The changes the provincial Conservatives forced through the House in 2012 broaden the definitions of those exceptions to the point where a government can hide just about anything it wants.   

It also changed section 7, that bit that says that the purpose of the Act is to give people a right to information.  That’s where they said the right of access does not includes a sweeping definition that could cover anything in the Confederation Building.  That wasn’t an accident.  The people who wrote Bill 29 wanted to make it plain that the public didn’t really have a right to anything the politicians and the bureaucrats didn’t want them to have.

The access to information problem in newfoundland and Labrador these days is not confined to Bill 29.  The Telegram’s Russell Wangersky got that much of it right in his Tuesday column.

What he got wrong is where the problem actually is.  Wangersky thinks it rests with the belief that “public servants in this province are not actually public servants — their loyalty is not to the public, but to whatever government signs their cheques.”  [italics added]

That’s not really the issue either. It’s true of every government in Canada.   In the example he uses,  former cabinet minister Paul Dicks said that we didn’t need a whistleblower law here because public servants owed their duty to disclose misbehaviour to their employer. 

Wangersky actually gets the meaning of the quote wrong. he confuses “government” and the politicians who sit in the House of Assembly.   Not really a big failing since that’s what people around here do as a matter of course.  They don’t distinguish between government on the one hand and the House of Assembly and politicians on the other.

The government itself is supposed to be run in the public interest.  Cabinet ministers may well be politicians but in their capacity as cabinet ministers,  they administer a government that isn’t supposed to have a partisan colour. 

As he runs down through the column to get to that point, Wangersky notes that the provincial government spends lots of money and employs lots of people.  Everyone keeps their mouths shut, whether it is public servants or people making money off government contracts.

But even that is not really the issue either. Lots of governments in North America occupy enormous chunks of economic real estate.  They play big roles in their economies and government spending is extremely important.

The problem is that we have come to accept the idea here that politicians take control of government and then get the right to do what they wish, the law be damned. 

We expect them to reward their friends and political donors with plum appointments to boards they are not qualified to sit on like Nalcor or, from the early days of the current administration, the old Bull Arm Corporation.

We expect that road paving and other public works will go to the companies that show their gratitude for the work with lots of cash to the governing party. Even if there isn’t any direction between the political donations and the contracts – toll-gating -  the companies who get government cash pour hundreds of thousands annually back to the party running the government just in case.

We accept the notion that road paving gets done in the districts that voted for the winning party and most likely not at all in districts that voted “the wrong way”. We accept it so readily that people don’t bat an eye when the Premier of the days says it is normal when his political staff vet the road paving plans.

We ignore completely the revelation that the political staff in the Premier’s Office and the Premier himself screen every single access to information request and decide which ones are allowed and which ones aren’t.
Want a school or a wharf?  Vote the right way.

Speak out of turn?  Face a threat that a politician will chop your government funding.  Remember that Fairity O’Brien made exactly that point in denying that he had pressured the local chamber of commerce in Gander:  “I don't hold any power over them as the MHA. I don't fund them. I can't pull their funding or anything like that.”

Let's not forget either the same cabinet minister who broke the law in revealing the contents of an e-mail between a reporter and the Premier’s Office.  His colleagues in the media didn’t pay much attention to the illegal disclosure on the radio or – as it turned out – in the private conversations earlier between political staffers and reporters apparently bent on trashing the errant reporter’s reputation. They aided the political smear by focusing on the salacious e-mails themselves.

That’s the black heart of the beast:  the quiet collusion, the culture of silence that values conformity above all.  The blood that pumps through the beast’s veins is the tacit consent to the illegal acts, the patronage, and the thuggery. The beast breathes deeply of the dank air of self-gagging,  the people who don’t voice their concern because they love their government handouts more than freedom.  It drinks deeply of the delicious nectar of self-censorship  - people who keep a story out of the news for whatever trumped up reason they use. And it savours the sweet flesh of those who do speak out, offered up as a sacrifice by their cowering fellows in the process.

When it comes to freedom  - freedom of information, freedom of speech, and freedom of  thought - in Newfoundland and Labrador, Bill 29 is not the problem.

Bill 29 is merely the spawn of a much darker creature.  It’s the child of  the political culture that bore it and then then helped to suckle it to maturity after 2003.