Mr. Chairman, and members of the committee, thank you very much.
I want at the outset to emphasize, for the record and for the media and members of the public present, that we're here at the invitation of this committee. We're not here seeking to make a presentation on behalf of anybody, and in particular I want to emphasize for you that we are not speaking on behalf of the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador or any agency of that government.
We're here because in an earlier life, a year or so ago, we were the members of a committee that was then functioning. That committee has now finished. We have no jurisdiction left to do anything or to express any views on behalf of any committees. I want the record to be very clear that we're here as individuals who happen to have been involved in that endeavour. You have asked us to come and speak with you about our experience in that, and we're happy to do that, but we're not representing anybody other than ourselves.
It may be helpful for me to outline how we approached the work that we were given. The preparation of the report and the drafting of the legislation were driven by the findings of the committee that were derived from four major factors.
The first was the circumstances that gave rise to the appointment of the committee some two years ahead of its statutorily scheduled time. I won't say anything about that unless you ask, and then we'll provide you with whatever information we have available. Otherwise, we'll say nothing about it.
Second, there's the premier's publicly stated description when he announced the appointment of the committee. He asked the committee to provide recommendations for “a strong statutory framework for access to information and protection of privacy, which when measured against international standards, will rank among the best.” We more or less took that to heart and set that as an umbrella objective of what we were doing. We used that constantly as a guide when we were developing it. We will elaborate on that and any questions you may have.
The third is the specific directions that were in the terms of reference. There was nothing terribly remarkable about them. They were essentially what one might expect in terms of reference for a committee being asked to do this kind of work.
The fourth was the committee's assessment of the practices and procedures of the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner as it had been working and as it was then working in the discharge of that office's oversight duties and how, even though well intentioned, those practices and procedures resulted in diminishing public access instead of enhancing it. We had to look very carefully at the way that functioned.
We concluded at the outset that we could not pursue and achieve the objectives that we were being asked to achieve without first assessing the stature of the right of access. What was it? What were its underlying principles? Why was it there? From that we would develop a guide as to what its character should be, what the rights were and their extent, and the limitations on them.
The extremes we heard from people were quite wide, indeed. They ranged from the view of the Centre for Law and Democracy, which categorized it as a human right and all of its characteristics and rights, with virtually no limitation to be determined because of the fact it was described as a human right. They ranged from that position to the view expressed by a professor from the university that the government “does not exist to finance the provision of information to its critics” and secondly, that “if requests are too frequent then the government will be required to divert excessive public funds to subsidize an insatiable appetite for information searches.“
Well, we didn't accept either of those extremes. Instead, we looked at how access to information rights had been treated and assessed in Canada. We did go to the Supreme Court side. We considered the decisions of the Supreme Court, and how they viewed it.
It was not described by them as either a human right or a constitutional right, but a quasi-constitutional right. They described its purpose as being to facilitate democracy, to enable people to participate meaningfully in the democratic process and, finally, to enable the citizenry to hold politicians and public servants to account. Those are the purposes of access to information.
From that, we decided early on that if we were to be successful in the objective, it would be best for us to include in our report an actual piece of legislation that we would recommend. Instead of describing what we thought it should be, we thought the best approach would be to actually draft the legislation that we would recommend. Then there could be no doubt, no misinterpreting, no misunderstanding, or no difficulty in interpreting what the committee was recommending, as the committee was expressing it in the legislation. We engaged the services of a person experienced in legislative drafting, and she did a great job for us. That was the approach we took to it.
The next slide shows the areas we looked at in particular, described in general terms. We will be happy to discuss any of them in detail, but rather than talk about things you're not interested in hearing about, we'd sooner give you the general framework, and you can ask whatever questions you want.
It first became necessary for us to repeal the sections of what was described as “Bill 29”. This was the legislation the government brought in a couple of years before that and created such a furor in the province and needed to be repealed, because it was the antithesis of what good access to information legislation should be. We had to deal with those issues.
Seen in the next slide is the next matter we dealt with, which was about the administrative matters, including the role of the coordinators in the different departments and agencies of government, and the question of fees, what they should be, whether they should be, and what limitations there should be on them. In particular, in dealing with the duty to assist, it was about emphasizing or trying to provide a basis for building within the public service a culture of obligation, an obligation to provide information to the public that didn't seem to exist earlier, and to also provide for limiting the power to disregard requests. There was a statutory power, as there is in the federal legislation, to disregard requests.
The next area we looked at was the office of the commissioner. We were not happy with the results of the existing ombudsman model. The commissioner's office was resisting an order-making model and emphasizing for us the flaws and defects in an order-making model. They made a good deal of sense, so we developed a hybrid, a combination of the two. It starts out, of course, being an ombudsman model, but the treatment of the recommendation of the commissioner after the recommendation is made and the procedures that have to be followed gives it the effect of being an order-making model. As far as the public, the requesters, are concerned, the burden shifts to the government department to establish that the information requested ought not to be released, instead of the other way around.
We discussed in detail the total role of the commissioner, not just the general administration of the office and the time limits for responses. We were very concerned about the time that had been consumed in getting access. As a matter of fact, the overwhelming majority of the complaints that we heard were about the time it took. They were focused on the departments and agencies of government as being the cause of this and had totally overlooked the impact of the role of the commissioner's office in these delays. We had to do a detailed examination of that.
The other general area that we looked at was modernizing the existing system, particularly in light of the instruction from the government to provide recommendations for legislation that, when examined or compared with other legislation in the world, would rank among the best. We had to do some modernizing of the existing system, and we did. We expanded the public interest overrider provided specifically for public interest override. That seems now to have been well received. We made recommendations for the provision of data sets and recommendations for implementation of a duty to document—not in the access to information statute, but in the statute regulating maintenance of information and documentation in government services generally, which is where we thought they should be. We gave the general recommendation in our report.
We also dealt with the development of publication schemes and acting proactively in getting information out without waiting for it to be requested, recognizing the importance to the general public of having this information. If they are to participate meaningfully in the democratic process, the general public needs the information. We felt there was an obligation on government and all of its agencies to be engaged in active publication of the information without waiting for requests.
We also felt there should be better development of privacy information assessments for new governmental programs and legislation and that before any of it was proceeded with, there should be an assessment of the impact on privacy rights, so we provided for PIAs as well.
Finally, we addressed requests for exemptions and kept those exemptions at a minimum. We rejected most of the ones that had been requested specifically to us and eliminated a good deal of the other exemptions that were in the old legislation. That enabled us to produce the legislation that government readily adopted without changing one single item in the legislation.
We were happy with that result, needless to say, and we're happy that generally speaking, we've heard good comment and widespread acceptance of the approach from stakeholders all across the country.
That's where we're going to stop, Mr. Chair, and leave it to you.
Did you want to add anything, Jennifer? I'm sorry.