Alberta’s Privacy Commissioner nailed it when he said that the government’s propensity to override the public’s right to information under the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (FOIP) was turning FOIP into “Swiss cheese”.* This is deeply distressing to citizens who live in a democratic society because the right to information, to quote Mr Work, “is fundamental to openness, accountability and transparency for public bodies.”
Let me take Mr Work’s concern one step further. The right to information is meaningless without the associated right of informed debate in the Legislature. Both of these rights are fundamental to the democratic process. And both of these rights has been shredded by 40 years of PC rule.
Take the debate over Bill 24, the Health Quality Council of Alberta Act, as an example.
The Bill 24 debate started when Premier Redford painted herself into a corner with her campaign promise to call a public inquiry into the intimidation of doctors and queue jumping. It went sideways when Ron Liepert threw down the gauntlet and said “over my dead body”. The result of this imbroglio is Bill 24.
Whenever new legislation is proposed you should ask two questions: (1) what is the problem the Legislature is trying to fix and (2) is the proposed legislation the best way to fix it?
The answer to the first question is obvious. The problem the Legislature is trying to fix is the a culture of intimidation which is driving good doctors out of the province and killing the moral of those who stay. After a pathetic attempt to convince the public that Bill 24 was exactly what Premier Redford meant when she promised a public inquiry the debate shifted to the second question: is Bill 24 the best way to fix the problem?
Health Minister Horne argues that a HQC inquiry under Bill 24 is better than a public inquiry under the Public Inquiry Act because Bill 24 is “customized to” and “best fits” the requirements of the health system.** Unable to demonstrate that the health system is unique, Mr Horne argued out of both sides of his mouth. He said that the Public Inquiries Act will impose more confidentiality than Bill 24 but admitted that the “in camera” powers under Bill 24 are broader than those under the Public Inquiries Act.***
Mr Horne’s focus on degrees of confidentiality completely misses the point. No one is asking for confidential treatment. The doctors are asking for the exact opposite—they want to speak freely and not be sued for breach of their non-disclosure agreements or worse yet, be harassed and intimidated to the point where they join the diaspora fleeing Alberta for a better life elsewhere.
The doctors want to show Albertans what intimidation looks like. They want a process to force the “in crowd”—PCs and their friends at College of Physicians and Surgeons, Alberta Health and Wellness (Minister Horne) and Alberta Health Services (the Superboard)—to stop the intimidation or suffer the consequences for failure to do so.
And that’s the nub of the problem. No matter how you cut it, Mr Horne’s rhetoric fails to justify the fundamental flaw with Bill 24. Namely that the Tories have handpicked the HQC which will handpick the HQC inquiry panel. The HQC panel will agree to allow testimony “in camera” if they are asked to do so by the “in crowd” and their decision to go “in camera” is final and not open to judicial review.
Couple Mr Horne’s misleading characterization of the Public Inquiries Act with the fact that the time for debate of this and several other critical bills has been compressed into a few days and evenings and you have an abuse of the democratic process of informed debate.
The Fall Session under Premier Redford is scheduled to run for 10 days. The first 2 days were primarily devoted to Ms Redford’s faux Throne Speech (Alberta will survive in the face of global uncertainty if we all tighten our belts). The last 8 days will be devoted to House business and debate on proposed legislation.
To their credit the Opposition agreed to sit for extended hours. This works for the PCs who have 67 members and can rotate MLAs through the hall, giving key MLAs an opportunity to rest up between rounds. The Opposition however are glued to their seats. The quality of debate on both sides has deteriorated. Members are exhausted. They’re calling each other bozos. They’re zoning out or taking catnaps. The proposed bills are amended time and time again, amendments and subamendments are tabled and the MLAs can’t remember which item they’re debating.
Mr Mason (NDP) raised this concern with the PCs. He called it ‘legislation by exhaustion”. Mr Hancock responded with disdain. He said the MLAs should suck it up and do their job. He referred to the proposed legislation as “Seven very straightforward, relatively simple bills. Important, straightforward, but simple.****He provided a short precise of each bill. Unfortunately in classic Rick Perry fashion he forgot two. I think he was tired.
At the end of the day the Opposition doesn’t stand a chance. They don’t have the time or resources to research and analyse the bills, get feedback from their constituents, propose amendments and debate bills that the PCs have been working on for months. The risk of creating a statute that is nothing more than a PC driven ill-conceived hodge-podge runs high.
If there is one thing that has become painfully clear from observing Premier Redford’s first term as PC leader it’s this: legislation by exhaustion may be in the best interests of the PC party, but it is definitely not in the best interests of the public. So when you’re standing in the election booth think of Swiss cheese—interesting food, scary democratic process.
*Report on the Use of “Paramount” Clauses in Acts and Regulations to Override the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act
**Hansard, Nov 29, p 1479
*** Hansard, Nov 22, 1236. Mr Horne makes two specious arguments. First he says that the Public Information Act will not protect confidential health information. It will by way of an application under section 9(4)(b) or (c) of the Act. Second he argues that the Public Inquiries Act requires certain matters to be heard in private. It does, but they are matters that are legally required to be kept confidential by statute, regulation or court order. A non-disclosure agreement or employment contract is not a statute, regulation or court order so this point is irrelevant.
****Hansard, Dec 1, 2011, p 1589