POLITICS

N.L. opposition filibusters for third night to protest 'regressive' info bill

06/13/2012 04:05 EDT | Updated 08/13/2012 05:12 EDT
ST. JOHN'S, N.L. - Punchy politicians in Newfoundland and Labrador engaged in a third straight night of marathon debates as critics blasted proposed access-to-information changes, saying they'll vault the province backwards in Canada and the world.

"It really is just regressive," Democracy Watch spokesman Tyler Sommers said Wednesday from Ottawa.

He was referring to the majority Tory government's sweeping expansion of cabinet secrecy while barring the auditor general from a broader range of records.

The contentious Bill 29, which passed second reading Tuesday, would also block release of ministerial briefings, increase fees and allow ministers to reject information requests as "frivolous" or "vexatious."

The government says the legislation respects the need for transparency while clarifying the right to information and protecting personal details.

Sommers said the changes fly in the face of information-sharing trends, and will drop the province's openness ranking compared to other parts of Canada and the world.

"What the government is essentially doing is creating a dangerous situation where they're going to be able to operate without public oversight, which leads to waste and corruption."

The province has already been rocked by a constituency spending scandal that saw four politicians of all stripes serve jail time for misusing public funds. It was a bombshell analysis from retired auditor general John Noseworthy that exposed the issue in 2006. The debacle was largely blamed on a lack of fiscal oversight and accountability in the house of assembly, and it led to major administrative changes.

Liberal and NDP opposition members say the government's move to restrict the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act is a leap in the wrong direction. They say they'll propose clause-by-clause amendments around the clock until the government shuts them down.

Government house leader Jerome Kennedy has indicated he won't move to end debate before early Thursday and may let it drag on longer.

Justice Minister Felix Collins has repeatedly argued that the bill strives to protect the right to information — which he says is not absolute — while safeguarding sensitive or personal documents.

Sommers of Democracy Watch says something has gotten lost in that balance.

Information should only be refused if there's a legitimate security or privacy concern, he said.

"In this case, it's fairly obvious that what they're expanding to not be included in access-to-information doesn't fall within either of those two categories. They're just simply attempting to make the undemocratic move of limiting information that's being presented to the public."

If postings online and calls to phone-in radio shows are any indication, the government has a public relations battle on its hands.

Some people blamed critics of the bill for not attending public consultations on the changes, and said the opposition's filibuster amounts to a pointless stunt.

But many others chided the Progressive Conservatives as a party that first ran for power in 2003 on vows of transparency and open government — only to erode information laws that were once considered cutting edge.

Liberal Opposition house leader Yvonne Jones, who took part in the only other comparable filibuster for 33 hours against Sunday shopping in 1997, said her party has no plans to quit.

"They have something to hide," she said of the government. "There's information that they don't want to have out there and they're prepared to bring this in.

"Now what is it they want to protect?"

Jones speculated that it could have something to do with the proposed $6.2-billion Muskrat Falls hydroelectric project in Labrador or with any number of issues involving oil and gas development or mining expansion.

"We're not able to determine at this stage but we know that whatever it is they want to hide, it's big enough that they're prepared to sacrifice public support and the public's opinion of them in order to do it."