N.L. government looking to deter access-to-information requests, critics say

Ahead of an upcoming review of access-to-information laws, critics are calling suggested changes — some coming from the highest levels of government — self-serving and deeply concerning.

Critics calling submissions ahead of ATIPP review self-serving, assault to democracy

Public agencies receive thousands of information requests from members of the public every year, but recent submissions to the review committee would deter people from ever making them, the privacy commissioner says. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

It's been five years since Newfoundland and Labrador made sweeping changes to its privacy laws that vastly improved access to government information.

But now the government executive council, which includes the premier's office, is trying to roll some of those changes back.

Justice David Orsborn is leading a mandatory review of access-to-information legislation. More than 40 government departments, public bodies and interested parties have submitted changes to those laws for Orsborn to consider.

Michael Harvey, the province's information and privacy commissioner, thinks Orsborn should entertain few, if any, of those recommendations.

"If it isn't broke, why are we trying to fix it?" Harvey asked in an interview with CBC.

The system, as it stands, is "the envy of the country," Harvey said, a result of a panel led by Clyde Wells in 2014 that stripped several barriers to public information encountered in other parts of Canada.

"Newfoundlanders and Labradorians get access to more information, faster — and usually for free — than their counterparts elsewhere in the country," he said.

A man with a beard looks straight into a camera.
Michael Harvey is Newfoundland and Labrador's privacy commissioner. (CBC)

The submissions are listed on the review committee's website. Harvey said some of them propose new rules that would allow government agencies to grant themselves time extensions.

Under the current rules, an access request must be fulfilled within 20 business days, and a department must apply for an extension through Harvey's office, rather than grant it under its own powers.

Other departments are suggesting the reintroduction of a nominal per-request fee, Harvey said. A charge "deters many people from submitting an ATIPP request, and that of course is the intention," he said.

Some submissions have also asked for broader exemptions and greater ability to shield some information entirely — even from Harvey himself.

"I was surprised to see those elements in so many government department submissions," Harvey said.

Although a fee, for instance, could halt "nuisance" requests, which ask for large amounts of data and takes effort to compile, Harvey said fulfilling those requests are simply part of a government's mandate.

"That's the price of democracy," he said, "a democratically accountable government that should be open, by default, to the public."

'Opposite of accountability'

Helen Conway Ottenheimer, the PC MHA for Harbour Main, conveyed similar concerns to the office of the executive council recommendations, which supported instituting fees and extension periods.

The premier's office is part of that council, but a spokesperson told CBC News it did not craft or sign off on the recommendations. The submission was instead drafted by bureaucrats familiar with access-to-information rules.

"The premier had made a commitment to more transparency and openness … a commitment he made in June of last year," Ottenheimer said. 

Helen Conway Ottenheimer, PC MHA for Harbour Main, says she's deeply concerned by the submission from executive council. (CBC)

"And now we see that that's not happening. In fact, the submission from the premier's office is more in line with creating and erecting barriers to people accessing information. So it's going in the opposite direction to ensuring accountability."

Ottenheimer said the changes would not serve the general public, who could expect to pay more and wait longer to obtain public records and data.

Transparency in times of of economic upheaval, she said, is especially important.

"[The Liberal government has] very important decisions to make," she said. "And it can't be behind closed doors."

Despite the volume of submissions, it struck Harvey that no public body made a request to enhance citizens' privacy rights, he said.

"I was really disappointed that there was not an effort to say, 'We're in a new millennium now.… Technology is changing. How does this affect the privacy rights of Newfoundlanders and Labradorians?'" he said.

Harvey calls the widespread suggestions, instead, a "desire on the part of the government to restrict access to make life easier for themselves."

Orsborn will hear verbal submissions and submit his report by March 31.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

With files from Peter Cowan