In the public interest

April 15, 2010 7:10 PM

Few people care about the minutiae of the continuous fight between the media and government for access to public documents. However, if there are any people who do enjoy those war stories, the CBC's fight for the Marshall-Thompson report into the future of the energy sector in New Brunswick is an interesting case study.

The fact the report was commissioned was no secret. After months of trying to get the document released without a Right to Information Act request, CBC News filed a request on Sept. 18. That was more than a month before the NB Power-Hydro-Québec saga erupted. The Department of Energy rebuffed that request, providing several pages of information but not the actual report, which it said could not be disclosed for various reasons, including that it was advice to minister.

CBC News appealed that to Ombudsman Bernard Richard on Nov. 2. In most normal cases, Richard's office meets with the department in question, reviews the documents and makes a recommendation on whether the information should be disclosed in 30 days. This time it took from Nov. 2 to April 1 for reasons that were not made clear in the ombudsman's final report.

The ombudsman meticulously analyzed the department's reasons for blocking the report and in most cases, he rebuffed them. He did allow the department to hold back the release of several pages, which outlined the consultants' main recommendations. But the ombudsman did make a direct appeal to the Department of Energy to release the entire report, citing the strong public interest in the subject.

"I would suggest that there is a strong public interest in the full disclosure of the information contained in the report, particularly in light of recent events which saw the proposed sale of NB Power to Hydro-Québec and the deal's subsequent collapse. In this case, the minister commissioned a report on public policy issues that affect all New Brunswickers. The government needs to abide not only by the letter of the law, but also by the spirit of the law, which favours full disclosure subject to very few exceptions."

A week after being handed the ombudsman's report, the provincial government decided to hand out copies to the entire New Brunswick press corps. That is definitely their prerogative, and only reporters care if they get copies first. One government official said they were released it to comply with an opposition tabling motion in the House. But let's not forget that the Opposition Motion 14 was proposed on Dec. 10, almost three months after CBC News first requested the document.

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