06/11/2012 12:10 EDT | Updated 08/11/2012 05:12 EDT

Opposition fears mount over Newfoundland changes to access-to-info laws

ST. JOHN'S, N.L. - The Conservative government of Newfoundland and Labrador has proposed changes to its access-to-information legislation that give departments more latitude in rejecting requests, a move the province's opposition parties say is an affront to democracy.

One measure would allow public bodies to reject requests they consider "frivolous, vexatious, made in bad faith, trivial, repetitious, systematic or amount to an abuse of process." Another would also prohibit the province's auditor general from accessing certain records.

The amendments also include a more extensive list of what constitutes a cabinet record, which is exempt under the legislation.

"When this government proclaimed the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act in 2005, we did so because the public have the right to information and it helps public bodies be more open and accountable," Justice Minister Felix Collins said in a statement Monday.

"The amendments brought forward today uphold our continued commitment to this important piece of legislation while providing clarity on the right to information and the use and disclosure of personal information."

But NDP Leader Lorraine Michael issued a statement saying the measures are regressive and she promised her party would filibuster for days to delay their passage.

"I simply cannot believe that a government which talks so much about openness and transparency can present this legislation and expect anyone to ever believe a word they say again," she said in a statement.

"The government's changes would allow them to categorize almost anything as a cabinet document and hide it forever under a blanket of secrecy."

Liberal Opposition Leader Dwight Ball also criticized the legislation.

"These amendments really tighten the screws on the release of any information by the premier and her cabinet," Ball said in a news release.

The amendments follow a review of the province's access-to-information legislation by lawyer John Cummings, who issued 33 recommendations. The government agreed to implement 16 of them.

The province's information and privacy commissioner declined to comment on the changes, saying it would be inappropriate.

"I will not be in a position to engage in discussion on the amendments until I am fully briefed and read-in," Ed Ring said in a statement.

"The bottom line here is that I am reluctant to make comments prematurely until the appropriate study and analytical work by my office is completed."

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