Furious politicians in Newfoundland and Labrador’s legislature were poised Thursday night to head into the end of a marathon debate on access to information law changes that several independent critics have now denounced as draconian.
The governing Progressive Conservatives vowed to bring closure to debate on Bill 29, which will introduce sweeping changes to the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act, including allowing cabinet ministers to keep secret many documents that now are released on request.
Debate became especially fiery on Thursday, after NDP Leader Lorraine Michael and Government House Leader Jerome Kennedy tangled several times over Michael's use of the word "racism" to critique the government.
Kennedy also attacked another NDP member for using the word "fascist" to describe the bill during a media interview.
In a filibuster that started Monday afternoon, Kennedy served notice after midnight Thursday that government would invoke closure on Bill 29.
"We had every intention of allowing this debate to go to its fullest, but in light of the way that this has deteriorated in the last little while," he told the house of assembly that government was pulling the plug on the debate.
'We have actually seen the essence of — and I’m going to say it — racism.' —NDP Leader Lorraine Michael
Members adjourned their raucous debate after NDP Leader Lorraine Michael apologized for using unparliamentary language.
"I cannot believe we are sitting in a legislature where we have actually seen the essence of — and I’m going to say it — racism," Michael said in the house.
Her comment was sparked by Justice Minister Felix Collins, who took sharp aim at a CBC News report on Wednesday that included comments by access to information expert Toby Mandel, who said Newfoundland and Labrador's amended information laws would rank lower than similar legislation in a number of developing countries.
"We have a charter of rights and freedoms," Collins said. "I don’t know if they have one in Ethiopia. I don’t know if they have a charter in Uganda, or Nigeria. That doesn’t bother people on the other side [of the house] … they have ATTIPA legislation in Nigeria?"
While the house adjourned and members got some sleep, the tone remained sharp and divisive when things resumed Thursday afternoon.
In Question Period, Kennedy could barely contain his feelings about Michael, saying her comments showed "how nasty you are." Michael filed a point of order over the comment, calling it a personal attack.
News report called 'cheap, amateurish'
Collins had little good to say about CBC's report, which he said inflamed debate rather than reporting facts.
"The cheap, amateurish presentation we saw tonight on the CBC — that's what it is, to create fear-mongering in people, create fear-mongering," Collins told the house.
In a news release issued Wednesday night, Collins said the CBC News report left the "wrong impression" about information laws in the province.
"What the news story does not make clear is that most countries that ranked the highest or strongest on this list are Third World countries," the justice minister said in a statement.
"Many of these countries are listed on travel alert watch lists, have known human rights abuses and high crime rates."
He said that all G8 countries are ranked below Mexico, Ethiopia, Nicaragua, Bulgaria, Uganda, Moldova and Guatemala in the rankings.
Meanwhile, the Centre for Law and Democracy — the independent organization that conducted the analysis of Bill 29 for CBC News — issued a letter Thursday hitting back at the justice minister's criticism.
The centre said many of the countries cited by Collins, in fact, have their own equivalents of Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
"While these countries' governments are passing strong access-to-information frameworks and working to improve government transparency, with Bill 29 the Newfoundland government is moving in precisely the opposite direction, towards greater secrecy and less openness," legal officer Michael Karanicolas noted.
"It is also somewhat troubling that, as Newfoundland's minister of justice and a main proponent of reform for Newfoundland's transparency system, you have such a poor grasp of the state of the right to information around the world."