Newfoundland and Labrador’s Tory government, stung by criticism about excessive secrecy, has made the latest in a series of moves to stress a commitment to openness.
"John F. Kennedy, who is a hero of mine and I'm sure many of you, always used to make the comment that governments can do better,” Premier Tom Marshall told a gathering of MHAs, political staffers and civil servants Thursday morning.
“And I agree."
Marshall launched the province’s open government initiative at a media event held in the lobby of Confederation Building.
The plan is aimed at improving the quality of government programs, services and decisions, and seeking out feedback from the public.
The province has created a website — open.gov.nl.ca — to act as a hub of government information.
At this point, the site is essentially one-stop shopping for things already found elsewhere on the province’s website.
That should soon change, as new information is added — although details remained scanty at the launch.
“It’s a work in progress,” Public Engagement Minister Steve Kent said. “Like everything we’re announcing today, this is just the starting point.”
Useable data sets to be made available
The government is also promising to make more data sets available on the new site, and to post them in formats that people can actually use.
That would mark a significant change from the current government policy.
The Tory government, now in office for more than a decade, has taken a public pounding since the introduction of Bill 29 nearly two years ago.
That legislation put significant restrictions on the public’s right to find out through open-records laws what happens inside Confederation Building and beyond.
Since Marshall became premier in January, he has moved forward an independent panel review of Bill 29 and dusted off a seven-year-old promise to bring in whistleblower legislation.
Now, the premier is pledging a potentially sweeping open-government initiative to unlock more information and make it readily available.
So why now?
"We're catching up,” Marshall said. “This is something progressive governments are doing. And we feel that anything we can do to make our citizens more informed, and then listen to them and hear what they've got to say, that augers well for the future governance in this province."
Opposition critical of announcement
The Liberals dismissed the announcement as a PR exercise.
Opposition Leader Dwight Ball called it “another desperate attempt by this government” to distance themselves from Bill 29.
The Liberals mocked the Tories over their claims of openness during an animated question period Thursday afternoon.
Ball questioned how much the “little party” to launch the initiative cost. The media event took place in the lobby of Confederation Building, and featured a professional sound and lighting system and an interactive audio-visual presentation.
The answer came later in the afternoon: $4,566.
Meanwhile, NDP MHA Gerry Rogers questioned whether the Tory initiative would be a “substantive” one.
“People have spoken out clearly about their objection to Bill 29,” Rogers said.
“This government’s been at the helm for 11 years. It’s about time that they started going in this direction. But is it more than window dressing? I don’t know.”