The Newfoundland and Labrador government is setting an ambitious timeline for passing new access to information and protection of privacy legislation.
Steve Kent, the minister responsible for the Office of Public Engagement, said Tuesday that June 1 is the goal.
He said the target date will present some challenges, but he believes the 90 recommendations contained in a comprehensive report presented earlier this month by an independent review committee can be implemented during the Spring session of the House of Assembly.
"I suspect it won't be perfect. We're talking about major changes. But we're going to do our best to be fully compliant with the legislation as quickly as possible," Kent said Tuesday morning while updating reporters on efforts to update and improve access to information laws.
Kent emphasized that government is responding with a "sense of urgency" because he believes that's what the public expects.
Dramatic overhaul on the way
The review of the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (ATIPPA) was carried out by an independent committee chaired by former Liberal premier and chief justice Clyde Wells.
It was ordered more than a year ago by then-premier Tom Marshall following harsh criticism of the government's record in relation to access to information, including the much-maligned Bill 29 amendments made in 2012.
The commission's final report, complete with a draft legislation, was released publicly on March 4.
Both the government and information and privacy commissioner Ed Ring quickly endorsed the report, meaning a dramatic overhaul of access to information and privacy laws is on the way.
Some of the recommendations that do not require legislative changes have already been implemented, Kent noted.
A week ago, for example, the government eliminated the $5 application fee for information requests, and amended the fee structure to include more free research time with each request.
The contentious practice of requiring MHAs — both those in government and opposition — to bring constituent concerns to the minister's executive assistant of the relevant department has also been dropped.
MHAs are now free to contact the department directly, said Kent.
Expanded role for access co-ordinators
One of the challenges of the tight timeframe will be preparing access to information co-ordinators for their expanded roles.
Kent said there are plans for extensive training, and it may be necessary to hire additional staff.
Kent said he is not convinced that every department will require a full-time access to information co-ordinator, and it may be possible to have a co-ordinator oversee several departments.
He said amendments to the Municipalities Act will also be required in order to develop a new standard around public disclosure.
The government will also boost the level of support it provides to municipalities to ensure they are compliant with the new access to information laws, Kent added.
'I'm sure it must have been difficult for the minister to stand here today and completely backtrack on everything he said three years ago.' - Andrew Parsons
Meanwhile, a so-called interdepartmental implementation team has been assembled, and the government is developing a strategy to ensure the public is kept up-to-date.
Kent said improving access to information is one of the government's highest priorities.
"There's a real opportunity here for us as a province to have the best legislation in the country and one of the best standards in the world. That's our goal," he said.
Both opposition parties have also supported the report.
Burgeo-La Poile MHA Andrew Parsons said he'll be happy to see the "draconian" changes brought in under Bill 29 done away with.
"I'm sure it must have been difficult for the minister to stand here today and completely backtrack on everything he said three years ago," said Parsons.