07 April 2014

Repealing Bill 29 #nlpoli

The Liberals proposed a motion during last week’s private member’s day that the government repeal Bill 29.

Meanwhile, at the Telegram, legislative reporter James McLeod has been waging a one-man crusade to get everyone to stop trying to repeal Bill 29.  Bill 29 actually fixed a few nasty things,  according to McLeod.  For example, rather than force reporters to chase after ministerial briefing notes,  Bill 29 banned release of them outright:

When Bill 29 came along, it created a specific exception to end this game. Now, the government could withhold any document which was “a record created solely for the purpose of briefing a member of the Executive Council with respect to assuming responsibility for a department, secretariat or agency.”

Then there is the matter of requests for information that the bureaucrats think are “frivolous and vexatious.”  The example McLeod uses to endorse that part of the bill is odd.  He filed a request for documents about the cod moratorium.  The Telly dropped the request when they discovered that a couple of days after getting their pile, the government proposed to release the whole pile on the Internet.  That wasn’t a frivolous request, incidentally, but McLeod holds it out as a justification for that bit of Bill 29. 


More recently, McLeod’s hit on another reason to criticise anyone who wants to repeal Bill 29.

Can’t do it, says McLeod.

A bill is a proposal to the legislature that gets debated and passed. Once it receives royal assent, the law of the land is changed and the bill ceases to exist. What the Liberals are really asking for — and yes, I know this is pedantic, but whatever — is for the government to repeal the provisions enacted by the Bill 29 of the first session of the 47th General Assembly of Newfoundland and Labrador. Provisions of an act can be repealed, but a bill cannot be repealed.

At least McLeod labelled the argument what it is.  Pedantry is an excessive concern with minor details and rules and in this case,  one could not find a more accurate term for that point.

As McLeod notes,  the only thing needed to nullify the changes to the provincial access law made by Bill 29 in 2012 is to introduce a new bill.  The title can be “An Act to repeal Bill 29, 2012.”  The description can be that the new bill will repeal all the provisions of Bill 29, 2012 and the clauses of the new bill will accomplish the purpose. 

The members of the House can debate it and, at the end of the debate, they can vote on the bill.  If a plurality votes in favour, the bill passes and  - for all practical purposes – Bill 29 from  the 2012 session will have been repealed.

The effect of such an event would be to restore the original Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act as it was before Bill 29.


Job done.

Now the Liberals know enough about how the House works to know that they cannot actually repeal the original Bill 29, for the reasons  McLeod noted.  But they also know that telling people they will repeal Bill 29 is a way of saying that the Liberals plan to get rid of the substance of Bill 29, to eliminate its effects.  That’s what counts, or at least what the Liberals obviously hope will count with voters.

Saving the Good Bits of Bill 29

As for the possibility there might be something in Bill 29 that is worth saving, we needn’t worry.  After all, as McLeod argues, you can’t repeal Bill 29 anyway.  Therefore, it’s hard to know what he is so worried about.

But let’s just suppose – for the sake of argument – that there is something worth salvaging in Bill 29.  Well, there are some parts at the back-end, mostly about appeals and reviews that might be worth taking a look at.

Frankly, you’ve got to get to the seventeenth clause before you find the first useful bit.  It corrects a typographical mistake in the first version. The next clause – 18 – allows the university to use personal information on alumni for fund-raising.  That might be useful, too.

But there isn’t a lot in the old Bill 29 that does any good for anyone interested in public access to government information and protecting personal privacy.  In practical terms,  then, if the Liberals form the next government, what they will do is exactly as we’ve described here.  They’ll lay out a bill that gets rid of all the bad changes made in Bill 29 from 2012 and leave the good ones intact.

They’ll call it repealing Bill 29.  It will do all the things people who are upset about Bill 29 expect it will do.  And it will leave in place the few things worth keeping, like fixing that typo.

And if, by some chance, the review commissions report is laying about and no one has done anything about it,  the new government can enact its changes either with the Bill 29 repeal bill – as we could rightly call it – or make the whole thing one big reform of access laws.

In the meantime, the Liberals will talk about repealing Bill 29 because – in the simplest and most obvious terms – that’s an idea people can get their heads around. 

To carry on an argument about whether you can technically repeal the original bill or what small bits of Bill 29 actually did some good is an exercise aptly named pedantic. 

There are times when technicalities matter.

This isn’t one of them.