POLITICS

A second all-nighter on access to information in N.L. legislature

06/12/2012 05:56 EDT | Updated 08/12/2012 05:12 EDT
ST. JOHN'S, N.L. - As MPs in Ottawa get set for an opposition-driven parliamentary marathon over the omnibus budget bill, they can look to their provincial cousins in Newfoundland and Labrador for inspiration.

Bleary-eyed politicians were set late Tuesday to spend a second night at the legislature in St. John's debating proposed changes to provincial access to information laws.

Liberal and NDP opposition members say they'll draw out debate on the changes until the majority Progressive Conservative government shuts them down.

Government house leader Jerome Kennedy has indicated he'll let the extraordinary sitting, which started Monday afternoon, carry on for at least one or two more nights.

The contentious changes would block release of ministerial briefings and bar the auditor general from a wider swath of records while allowing public bodies and ministers to reject requests they consider "vexatious" or "frivolous."

Bill 29, which passed second reading Tuesday, has been slammed by opposition leaders and the watchdog group Democracy Watch as a regressive move that would turn the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act into a Secrecy Act.

"Mr. Speaker, the right to information is an important one, one that we have to protect and guard," Justice Minister Felix Collins said during question period Tuesday. "But it is not absolute.

"We have to find a balance in terms of giving people access to information, but also being good stewards of the country's assets and the country's information and records."

There were often testy exchanges as debate neared 24 hours on Tuesday. Opposition members challenged the government's logic and threw back words spoken by former Tory premier Danny Williams while he was still in opposition.

At the time, he accused the Liberals of not going far enough with access to information measures that were once considered a national example of openness. Williams was later criticized in office for making changes that started closing that door.

For example, provincial Crown corporation Nalcor Energy, a driving force behind the proposed $6.2-billion Muskrat Falls hydroelectric project in Labrador, is largely exempt from access to information laws and can block — through legislation passed under Williams — the public release of auditor general reports that Nalcor itself deems commercially sensitive.

The latest amendments also include a more extensive list of what constitutes cabinet records, which are exempt under the legislation.

Proposed changes follow a legislative review by lawyer John Cummings, who made 33 recommendations. The government agreed to act on 16.

Collins says it's a response that upholds transparency while clarifying the right to information and protecting personal data.

Liberal and NDP leaders are vowing to fight around the clock until the government shuts down debate by invoking closure. Still, they're up against a large Tory majority in the house of assembly where the legislation is expected to easily pass.

The epic sitting, complete with naps on couches in caucus offices and take-out meals, comes as MPs prepare for their own showdown in the House of Commons.

Starting late Wednesday, MPs are expected to begin voting on 800 amendments to the massive omnibus budget bill — a 400-page tome packing measures that will alter more than 70 laws, from fisheries habitat protections to the fate of the defunct penny.

By the time MPs begin their work in Ottawa, members of the Newfoundland and Labrador legislature will likely still be on their feet.