POLITICS

Record filibuster on N.L. access-to-info restrictions ends on sour note

06/14/2012 06:36 EDT | Updated 08/14/2012 05:12 EDT
ST. JOHN'S, N.L. - More than 50 hours of almost continuous debate in the Newfoundland and Labrador legislature was to wind down by early Friday as an opposition filibuster over access to information became a fight over perceived racism.

Government house leader Jerome Kennedy moved to end the record-breaking sitting after NDP Leader Lorraine Michael accused Justice Minister Felix Collins of "systemic racism."

She apologized for what was deemed unparliamentary language and withdrew the remark. But Kennedy said during question period Thursday that the tone of debate set by Michael "shows how nasty you really are."

He made the comment after Michael asked Collins to apologize for remarks he made in reference to a report by the Halifax-based Centre for Law and Democracy. The centre warned in a letter to Collins that changes proposed by the majority Tory government would drop the province's openness ranking below such countries as Mexico, Uganda and Ethiopia.

"This is not to say that Ethiopia and Uganda are, necessarily, more transparent societies," legal officer Michael Karanicolas wrote on behalf of the centre. "Our analysis measured only the strength of the legal framework for access, not the quality of its implementation."

Collins said that was the point he was trying to make in the legislature when the NDP leader accused him of racism. He told reporters that the centre's ranking method has to be taken in the context that Canada and other G8 countries also placed below several developing countries.

Collins said it's absurd to compare Newfoundland and Labrador with regimes that, while they may have strong access-to-information laws on the books, are also accused of extreme human rights abuses.

The Liberal and NDP opposition had vowed to indefinitely debate the government's proposed changes clause by clause, arguing that they turn the province's Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act into a Secrecy Act.

Those amendments would vastly expand cabinet secrecy provisions, bar the auditor general from a broader range of records, increase fees and limit the provincial information commissioner's handling of certain appeals.

The bill would also block release of ministerial briefings and allow cabinet 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.

"We have no intention of withdrawing this bill," Collins told reporters Thursday. "This bill, as far as we're concerned, strikes a fair balance between safeguarding people's right to information and also protecting certain government and public interests."

It is expected to easily pass in a legislature dominated by 37 Progressive Conservatives versus six Liberals and five New Democrats.

The legislation has been called a "shocking" and "dangerous" affront to open government by Democracy Watch and the Canadian Association of Journalists.

Michael of the NDP says it turns the province from a leader on information sharing into "a national embarrassment."

Collins shrugged off a barrage of criticism both from outside and within the province.

"I think people are basing opinions on a negative spin that has been put out there," he said. "This is not a bill about secrecy. This is not a bill about trying to hide anything. This is a bill about ... streamlining the process, making the process much easier," and bringing it in line with other jurisdictions, he said.

Liberal Opposition house leader Yvonne Jones said the government has "cherry picked" some of the most restrictive aspects of information laws in provinces such as Alberta and is calling it jurisdictional alignment.