31 January 2014

Doing it right #nlpoli

Premier Tom Marshall confirmed on Thursday that the provincial government will be doing the review of the provincial information and privacy law a year earlier than scheduled.

They will also be appointing three people to serve as the commission conducting the review.  The provincial government is also accepting nominations for commissioners.

While other details of the review aren’t public yet, the news so far is good.

Make no mistake:  a provincial government genuinely committed to public access to government information must get rid of the changes made by the now infamous Bill 29. 

There is more to reforming access to information rules than just going back to the way things were a couple of years ago, however. The problems run much deeper than just Bill 29 and some suggestions for improvement made in the last review haven’t been implemented fully, if at all.

In addition, some aspects of government recording keeping and disclosure policy make it necessary to reconsider the way some sections of the access law are worded. At the time time, the review should take into account the way the access to information law works in concert with other records management policy so that important information is not destroyed when it should be retained for future use.

Some aspects of the 2002 access and privacy law have worked very well.  The information and privacy commissioner’s office has grown out of nothing into an important part of the system that ensures public access.  The commissioner’s office could take on more responsibilities for responding to requests, particularly if those responsibilities reduced or eliminated the chances for illegitimate political interference in access as we’ve seen continuously over the past decade.  A key improvement in information access would be to replace the review once every five years with an annual audit by the information commissioner.

If the provincial government wants suggestions for the review commissioners, there are plenty available.

Madame Justice Margaret Cameron, now retired from the bench, has a thorough knowledge of and first-hand experience with government records management practices through her time at the breast cancer inquiry.  She would bring the necessary integrity to a review that could all-too-easily dismissed as irrelevant if the cabinet appoints lesser lights to the review.

Former CBC producer Doug Letto would also be a fine commissioner.  He would bring a combination of personal integrity and extensive professional experience in news reporting to bear on the task.  One of the big users of access laws are reporters.  Letto’s career spans the original and current access to information laws.

The third place on the commissioner should go to one of the original commissioners whose report more than a decade ago led to development of the 2002 Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act.  Siobhan Coady would be an excellent choice but her political activity makes it inappropriate to appoint her to this task.  Either of the other commissioners – Joan Dawe, Dennis Browne, or Dr. Len Williams – could take up the job and bring a particular historic perspective to the current review.

The right people, armed with a sufficiently broad mandate and sufficient resources can do a proper job of identifying changes to the provincial access and privacy laws that would vastly improve the current situation.  Since the commissioners are unlikely to finish their work in time for the current administration to do anything about it, that offers the greatest hope that whatever good the commissioners do can actually make it into the future laws.  After all, the people who have spent the past decade doing the wrong thing - frustrating public access to information  - can hardly be trusted to do the right thing just because they are desperate to save their political hides.