03 March 2014

Access to Information - some misunderstandings #nlpoli

A tale out of Ottawa reveals the extent to which access to information problems crop up in lots of places.

CBC News asked for a copy of a memo from the commander of the Canadian Army about leaks of information within the army.  CBC apparently had a copy of the memo or someone had seen it and so they formally requested a copy.

The tale gets interesting because of the internal dispute over how to respond to the request.  Most public affairs officers advised the commander to direct the CBC to file an access to information request.  Only one public affairs officer – a former political aide to Prime Minister Brian Mulroney – advised against that action and, ultimately, refused to be the one to tell CBC what to do.

The army relented, largely due to that refusal, and released the letter to the media without forcing them to go through the access process.

The story from Ottawa illustrates a simple point about all requests for government information:  the government can respond to any request without forcing people to file paperwork and pay fees. 

Now that isn’t what lots of people believe in this province.  That’s largely because over the last decade the current provincial administration has abused the province’s access laws in many ways.  One of the was has been by insisting that the access to information law restricts what the cabinet can do when it comes to releasing information just because they really didn’t want to hand over the information. 

Liberal MHA Christopher Mitchelmore fell into the Conservative trap on Friday when he told On Point Radio listeners that the provincial government could release the federal independent engineer’s report on Muskrat Falls, subject to the Access to Information Act.

The document belongs to the federal government.  Unless the federal government has some objection, the provincial government or Nalcor can release the entire thing, without holding anything back.  It’s really that simple.

Again, apart from any federal government objection, the only reason the provincial government is holding back the federal reports are because there is information in there that would contradict Nalcor’s claims about the project and their management of it.  If the project is every bit as wonderful as they claim, there should be nothing in it that would harm their commercial interests or give their creditors one second’s concern.

And while we are talking about the independent engineer’s report, let’s think for a second about the idea that the report the provincial government has is not the final one.  One of the excuses natural resources minister Derrick Dalley tossed out to James McLeod last week was that it was an interim report.

‘Interim” is one of those words provincial bureaucrats use to justify holding back a report they have but don’t want to deal with yet.  The thing might actually be a final version as far as the consultant who wrote it was concerned. But if the thing has some recommendations or comments that the bureaucrats and politicians don’t like, they will call it a “draft” or an “interim” report. That could mean lots of things, including that they are trying to get some comments removed because they are embarrassing.

So yeah, the federal government might not get into a discussion about whether a report is a final one or not because it’s a load of provincial government bullshit of one kind or another.

After all, it’s not like the natural resources department has a record of being open, transparent, and accountable.  Quite the opposite.  The provincial department is notoriously secretive. 

Judge yourself accordingly.