'Countless' info requests average 11 per week

Cabinet ministers insisted Tuesday that government is overwhelmed by innumerable access to information requests, though official numbers paint a very different picture.
Ministers claim they are overwhelmed with access requests, reports David Cochrane 2:59

Newfoundland and Labrador cabinet ministers continued Tuesday to paint the government as plowed under by innumerable access to information requests, even though official numbers paint a different picture entirely.

Justice Minister Felix Collins speaks Tuesday in the house of assembly. (CBC )

The governing Tories have come under fierce criticism for Bill 29, which when passed will make it substantially harder to obtain information connected to government decision-making. A filibuster continued Tuesday evening for the second straight night.

Cabinet ministers have said the government is overwhelmed by requests, many of which they say are mere nuisances, or the requests of journalists and Opposition politicians who don't want to work hard to find their own information.

"You know, they make countless and countless requests for information," Service Newfoundland and Labrador Minister Paul Davis said.

But the requests are not countless at all, as they have been tallied annually in the reports of the office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner.

For the 2010-2011 year, there were 581 requests to all public bodies, which together number about 500.

That works out to an average of 11 requests each week for the entire province.

For the preceding year, there were 579 requests.

The Information and Privacy Commissioner reported that there were 84 requests for review last year, slightly higher than the 82 of the preceding year. Eighteen of those files turned into formal complaints last year, up from 13 the year before.

But Justice Minister Felix Collins, who fielded most of the Opposition's questions at the house of assembly Tuesday, left a different impression Monday while describing the rationale for Bill 29.

"The thousands of requests that come in to public bodies for information — if you directed them all to the privacy investigator, privacy commissioner, he'd do nothing else but make decisions on that kind of information," Collins said.

"You'd tie him up completely."

Bill 29 will make it difficult to obtain what the government deems to be cabinet papers, including briefing books that have been released in the past.

Opposition Leader Dwight Ball as well as other Liberal and NDP MHAs fired heavily at the government benches, with Ball challenging a comment that Premier Kathy Dunderdale made Monday.

"Yesterday, the premier stated there are a lot of vexatious requests for information and attributed those coming from the Opposition parties. Of the 175 requests for review from the Information Commissioner, 90 per cent were initiated by individuals and only 2 per cent from political parties," Ball said. "Why are you making it harder for individuals in our Province to access information?"

Collins responded that Newfoundland and Labrador has ranked second among Canadian jurisdictions for releasing personal information within statutory guidelines.

As well, Collins suggested that most people don't care about the issue, despite keen interest from the media and other politicians.

"Who out there cares what's in a minister's briefing book?" Collins told the house.

Government will become secretive: pundit

But Russell Wangersky, an editor and columnist at the St. John's Telegram, said the changes make a mockery of the spirit of access to information legislation.

"The constituency scandal went on for years and years because there was no open access for the auditor general to look at the books at the house of assembly," said Wangersky, who said investigative journalism will suffer if Bill 29 passes.

He also said it will make Kathy Dunderdale's government more secretive than that of Stephen Harper.

"Details about the F35 fighters, details about the purchases at the G-8-20 summits, details of the Gazebo Gate, even details of the robocalls came about through federal access to information requests. None of those could have come out under the proposed changes to our provincial act," Wangersky told CBC News.

With files from David Cochrane