The Newfoundland and Labrador government’s push to reconnect with voters should include an about-face review of access-to-information restrictions that it has staunchly defended, says new premier Tom Marshall.
He did not mince words Wednesday when asked if he had any thoughts on how those changes have hurt the ruling Progressive Conservatives.
“Any thoughts? Not that I can express in good company,” he told reporters.
Bill 29 enshrined changes to the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act in 2012 that opposition critics and national accountability watchdogs slammed as regressive and even dangerous.
They blocked release of ministerial briefing notes, increased protections for cabinet documents, hiked search fees and allowed ministers to reject requests as “frivolous” or “vexatious.”
Liberal Opposition Leader Dwight Ball has said if he wins the next election, expected sometime next year, his first act would be to repeal those amendments. He downplayed Wednesday any talk of revisiting what he has dubbed the government’s “secrecy law,” calling it a smoke-and-mirrors tactic.
Still, it’s a major shift for a government that has until now turned a deaf ear to such critics.
Marshall said when cabinet meets Thursday he’ll suggest that a mandated review of the legislation due in 2015 be moved up.
“One of the things I said we were going to do is we’re going to listen to the people of the province. And I think people have real concerns over Bill 29.”
The government defended its access-to-information record in a news release last month.
“Since January 2013, the majority of general access to information requests to government departments have resulted in full or partial disclosure,” it said.
But Ball and other critics cite the number of documents released with large sections blacked out.
Marshall maintains that the law properly excludes information that should be withheld. But he said any review would look at all provisions and should include public consultations along with input from Information and Privacy Commissioner Ed Ring.
Marshall’s comments followed a cabinet shuffle Wednesday just days after he was sworn in to replace former premier Kathy Dunderdale. She stepped down Jan. 22 after a rough year of rock-bottom approval ratings and withering public criticism – much of it around perceptions of secrecy.
The shuffle sees Charlene Johnson take over Marshall’s former role as finance minister, and backbencher Felix Collins return to cabinet as attorney-general.
Marshall said he may reconfigure his inner circle again as the race to replace Dunderdale as leader of the Progressive Conservative party heats up. He has confirmed that anyone in cabinet running for the top job will have to temporarily step aside from those duties.
Corner Brook fishery magnate Bill Barry, CEO of Barry Group Inc., formally joined the contest Wednesday by taking a swipe at Bill 29. Signs at his news conference in Corner Brook featured a red stroke through the number 29, and called for “democracy, transparency, accountability and humility.”
Barry called the legislation the most undemocratic thing he has ever seen.
Marshall revealed plans for the review after being asked about Barry’s stand.
Other names circulating of potential leadership contenders include Natural Resources Minister Derrick Dalley, Justice Minister Darin King and Municipal and Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Steve Kent.
Tim Powers, a Conservative commentator and Ottawa lobbyist, is also considering a run.
A date and more details about the leadership convention are expected after members of the Tory party executive meet this weekend.
Marshall has indicated that he will not run for re-election and only expects to be premier for three or four months.