Recently proposed changes to the Right to Information and Protection of Privacy Act have been cause for concern for critics.
The Act is used by journalists, the Ombudsman, opposition parties, and other citizens to request information from the government.
The proposed changes cede power to the New Brunswick provincial government to determine how to process freedom of information requests.
The government says these changes are to help speed up the process of responding to information requests from the public. However, critics are skeptical.
The proposed Bill allows the treasury minister to “establish directives and guidelines setting out the requirements to be met” by the government body which is completing the request.
Critics are worried that this vague wording is ripe for abuse by government officials, eroding the public’s right to information.
“Whether [the Bill] improves things will be largely dependent on what the Minister does with their discretion,” said New Brunswick Ombud, Charles Murray.
The main concern for Murray is that the changes are taking place outside of a larger conversation about the purposes of Freedom of Information rights in New Brunswick.
“The amendments seek to make changes without first establishing where we are, why we are there, and where we want to go.”
To Murray, speeding up the process is not beneficial unless the intended result is achieved as well.
“By speeding up the process, the effect might amount to people getting their ‘no’s faster.”
The amendment, then, seems to be avoiding the change that is needed most — namely, a culture shift inside of government that leans towards transparency with the public.
“We need to encourage and build a culture of openness and transparency throughout government.”
A main side effect of giving the Minister more discretion in information requests is that it erodes public trust in the government when those requests are denied.
Opposition MLAs believe these amendments are the latest in the government’s efforts to erode transparency.
The Bill has now passed its second reading in the legislature.