Major changes are coming to access to information laws in Newfoundland and Labrador following the much-anticipated release Tuesday morning of a report prepared by an independent commission.
The report gives 90 recommendations on how the province can improve the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act, and it appears the provincial government is ready to implement each and every one.
The commission's report, if implemented, will effectively overwrite Bill 29, the contentious law that former premier Kathy Dunderdale unveiled in 2012.
Some of the highlights include giving more power to the province's information commissioner, and placing the onus on the government when it comes to preventing the release of information.
Steve Kent, the minister responsible for the Office of Public Engagement, says the proposed changes will make this province's system among the best of the world.
Kent's tone is a strong indication that the government of Premier Paul Davis is committed to implementing the recommendations.
"We will be acting on the recommendations contained in the report," said Kent, adding that the government will begin implementing the recommendations during the spring sitting of the House of Assembly.
The commission even went so far as to write draft legislation of its own.
The independent commission is chaired by former Liberal premier and chief justice Clyde Wells, who prepared the report with retired journalist Doug Letto and former federal privacy commissioner Jennifer Stoddart.
"In the end the public interest is what's important," Wells said during a news conference.
Stinging review of Bill 29
The commission delivered a stinging review of Bill 29. That legislation was widely criticized, prompting former premier Tom Marshall to announce a full review of access to information laws a year ago.
The review commission recommends stripping away many of the restrictions put in place by Bill 29.
The commission proposes to empower the information commissioner at the expense of cabinet secrecy, noting that "public interest in paramount."
Even briefing books to minister can no longer be withheld.
As well, the government will now have to go to court to stop the release of information. Bill 29 forced citizens and the information commissioner to seek a remedy from the courts.
The report recommends eliminating many fees, including the $5 base fee, and reducing others, and hardening the timelines under which information must be released.
The government can no longer use cabinet secrecy or solicitor-client privilege to deny information commissioner access to documents.
Tighter rules for cabinet ministers
Cabinet ministers can no longer dismiss information as "frivolous and vexatious" without the approval of the information commissioner.
The commission is also condemning a policy that prevents MHAs from going directly to a government department in order to seek help for a constituent.
Currently, MHAs have to filter their requests for assistance through the minister's staff.
Some other recommendations include:
- Extend the term of office for the information commissioner from two to six years to allow for greater independence;
- Wells wants a shortlist of candidates for information commissioner to be drafted by an independent committee, rather than chosen solely be cabinet;
- A reappointment of the information commissioner must be endorsed by a double-majority vote, with a majority of government and opposition MHAs;
Kent said the review was more that just an assessment of Bill 29.
"We're not just tweaking," said Kent. "What's being proposed here is a brand-new piece of legislation."
Kent said the government has known for some time that there were "significant concerns" with access to information laws in the province.
"I believe this report will address those concerns and ensure we have legislation that the public can have great confidence in."
The report cost the provincial government $1.1 million, Kent told reporters.