Muskrat Falls inquiry exemption 'appropriate and consistent,' says privacy commissioner

The Muskrat Falls inquiry has been granted a partial exemption from freedom of information laws, a move that has angered opposition parties.

PCs, NDP oppose move, but inquiry commissioner says it's necessary to ensure thorough investigation

Donovan Molloy is Newfoundland and Labrador's information and privacy commissioner. (Submitted photo)

Newfoundland and Labrador's privacy commissioner agrees that it's appropriate for part of the Muskrat Falls inquiry to be exempt from freedom of information laws.

Commissioner Donovan Molloy issued a news release Thursday after the House of Assembly Management Commission narrowly voted to allow an exemption, which inquiry commissioner Justice Richard LeBlanc requested.

Molloy said the exemption will allow the inquiry to proceed "more efficiently and expeditiously."

He also stressed that it's a temporary measure, and that the inquiry's records will be subject to access to information requests after its conclusion.

Molloy weighed in Thursday after the management commission voted 4-3 to allow the exemption.

"From his words, to not grant his request would compromise the integrity of his investigation and hamper the inquiry and the seeking of answers into the debacle we now know as Muskrat Falls," said Liberal backbencher and management commission member Mark Browne.

Liberal MHA Mark Browne is a member of the House of Assembly Management Commission. (Ted Dillon/CBC)

Government members supported LeBlanc's request, but PC and NDP members voted against it, arguing, among other things, that the issue should be dealt with in the House of Assembly when it resumes sitting later this month.

Government, opposition at odds

NDP Leader Lorraine Michael said she is "deeply concerned" by the decision.

"One of the issues that has come up over and over again is the lack of transparency and openness throughout the entire Muskrat Falls project," Michael wrote in a news release.

"The public expect — and deserve — to get full information into everything that led us to this point, and to access that information in a timely manner. This can no longer happen with this exemption."

Browne chastised Michael and PC Leader Paul Davis for their opposition to the exemption.

NDP leader Lorraine Michael says she is deeply concerned about the ATIPPA decision. (Gary Locke/CBC)

"The people of the province have to ask the opposition parties: Are they going to co-operate with the Muskrat Falls inquiry or not?" Browne asked.

"The people of the province want answers. They want to know what happened here. Who made these decisions? To prevent it from ever happening again."

The people of the province want answers. They want to know what happened here.- Liberal MHA Mark Browne

Premier Dwight Ball released details of the inquiry in September. It will delve into the massively over-budget and behind schedule hydroelectric project in Labrador.

The project was sanctioned by a former PC government in 2012, but the costs have since ballooned to nearly $13 billion, with full power not expected until 2020.

In his letter to government, LeBlanc spelled out his reasons for requesting an exemption.

"If the commission of inquiry is required to respond to ATIPPA requests during the course of its investigation, the investigation will be hampered," LeBlanc wrote.

Muskrat Falls is a hydro-electric project in Labrador. (Nalcor)

"Investigators need to have the ability to carry out their work in confidence, both to give the investigators full freedom to explore avenues of investigation and to help ensure that all relevant evidence is preserved and available."

LeBlanc added that the inquiry will need the full co-operation of key players, and if the inquiry is unable to "assure parties that the documents provided will not be potentially subject to an early release to ATIPPA requests, I expect we will lose some or much of the co-operation needed."

Under those circumstances, he said the inquiry might be forced to "expend time and effort dealing with legal challenges or other issues in the courts that would otherwise by avoided."