Wednesday, June 13, 2012

We All Answer To Someone .. Or Do We?

In my native province of Newfoundland and Labrador, a filibuster is in progress as the Provincial Government debates Bill 29.  Bill 29 contains amendments in regards to requests for information from non-government entities, including the citizens of the Province.

As I read the bill, there is one section that stands out (emphasis added is mine):

      21. The Act is amended by adding immediately after section 43 the following:
Power of a public body to disregard requests
   43.1 (1) The head of a public body may disregard one or more requests under subsection 8(1) or 35(1) where
            (a)  because of their repetitive or systematic nature, the requests would unreasonably interfere with the operations of the public body or amount to the abuse of the right to make those requests;
             (b)  one or more of the requests is frivolous or vexatious; or
             (c)  one or more of the requests is made in bad faith or is trivial.

Vexatious, according to the Oxford dictionary, is defined as follows:

  • causing or tending to cause annoyance, frustration, or worry
  • Law: denoting an action or the bringer of an action that is brought without sufficient grounds for winning, purely to cause annoyance to the defendant

Back in 2006, the government of Newfoundland and Labrador was rocked by a spending scandal that resulted in bureaucrats and elected officials being responsible for absconding with funds in excess of $2.6 million.

If rumors of such an event  or other inappropriate activity were percolating today within the government and additional information was sought by the media or the Auditor General, such queries could cause significant annoyance to the defendant, whether it be the governing party or the specific individuals who were rumored to be acting in an inappropriate manner.

In fact, such queries could legally be considered to be vexatious and therefore, under the terms of Bill 29, could be rejected.

A slippery slope indeed.

The Master and the Servant

We refer to the people who work in provincial government as public “servants”.

I wonder who the master is and who the servant is when public servants are enabled to act without oversight, protected by legislation that enables them to turn away requests that in their eyes are vexatious or which they can label as frivolous in order to avoid further investigation of a potential wrongdoing.

The people who are empowered to deny requests for information are not even elected officials, being a group of unknown bureaucrats buried within the bowels of the organization and yet enabled with the power to decide what the government will reveal to its citizens.

Justice Minister Felix Collins noted that such legislation enables government to “find a balance in terms of giving people access to information, but also being good stewards of the country's assets and the country's information and records."

In a world where dishonesty doesn’t exist, such interpretations of the bill could be made.

However, people being people and in a legislature that has had, in its storied history, people who have used the system to their advantage, this bill creates a dangerous loophole.

If I were the type of person seeking to make personal gain on the backs of the taxpayer as people have done in the past, I would refer to this loophole as either Project Gravy Train or Project CYA.

Project Gravy Train (aka Project CYA) empowers unelected, unknown individuals to decide what information regarding the thoughts and intentions of the public masters, (oops, public servants)  are revealed.

It also empowers them to hide information that could be politically embarrassing or that which may reveal illegal, unethical or immoral activity.


If a privately-held company attempted to withhold information from the public that we deemed was important to know from a legal, ethical or moral perspective, we would demand that the “system” step in and right the wrong.

So why don’t we do the same when the keepers of the “system” are attempting to do the same thing with potential to benefit themselves?

If we were discussing really secret stuff like national security and the like, I would understand protecting the information.

However, this is information that, when revealed, allows us to have some sense of transparency and accountability within the ranks of public servants.

This is especially important when one considers that Premier Dunderdale is always chanting the mantra of transparency.

Such inconsistency of word versus action brings to mind an old joke about how you can tell if a politician is lying.

But I wouldn’t be so crass as to use it here.

Ahhhhh …. public servants.  By definition, they are supposed to work for the people but I think they believe it’s the other way around.

Unfortunately, as long as citizens don’t work harder to demand accountability from public “servants”, this perception actually becomes a fact.

So when we contemplate the need for transparency within government, let us not be convinced that restricting access to information is akin to protecting information being used for something more sensitive such as the war on terror.

However, there does seem to be a war in progress …. a war against accountability, transparency and common sense in government.

And that worries me far more than the war against terror.

In service and servanthood,


PS In fairness to public servants who actually do good work and are proud of their service to the public, the nebulous nature of this bill makes their job more difficult.

It’s like changing the speed limit of a highway from 60 mph to “whatever you feel is safe”.  Drivers will proceed to drive any speed, making enforcement of safe driving almost impossible (“well officer, you say I was driving too fast but I felt perfectly safe”).

So for those public servants, they run the risk of allowing a request that they felt was safe (but in fact wasn’t) or rejecting a request that they felt was vexatious (but wasn’t). 

This allows blame to be shifted to them should something nasty erupt after the request for information is responded to.  If something hits the fan later, someone else will scream at them or vilify them, informing them that their interpretation of the words vexatious and frivolous was incorrect and they will be punished as a result (potentially deflecting blame and responsibility away from the perpetrator).

The use of words that are relative, vague and open to interpretation produces an environment where someone will inevitably get hurt, either wilfully or accidentally.

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