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Editorial: Right to No!

Libs didn’t want to anger municipalities, choosing those relationships over the public’s right to know

The headline here was taken from deep within our archives, from an editorial published in these pages on Sept. 20, 2009.

It’s one of many bemoaning the lack of transparency in all levels of government and sounding the alarm begging somebody — anybody — to fix things.

“The territory needs better government. We’re talking about municipal, First Nation and territorial levels,” reads another editorial from January 2011. “Without it, we’re all gonna suffer.”

That young whippersnapper with a pen that used to be able to make politicians quiver was Richard Mostyn.

The journalism gods smiled down on young Mostyn and gave him the power to fix things. He’s the Minister of Highways and Public Works now and his department got to write a whole new Access to Information and Personal Privacy Act.

And what did he do with this gift that us ink-stained wretches would give a piece of our mostly-pickled livers for? He tripped at the finish line.

Mostyn and the rest of the Liberal cabinet, which notably includes former information and privacy commissioner Tracy-Anne McPhee, proved they’re more afraid of angering the bureaucrats and other levels of government than they are willing to do what’s best for the general public.

They were faced with tough decisions and their spines gave out.

Mostyn’s new legislation includes many improvements. It promises to proactively release more documents and it sets stricter rules for how fast information needs to be released. It finally has a public interest override section that would allow redacted information to be revealed if it’s in the best interest of the public.

But the legislation lacks teeth where it matters most. The Liberals have continued the tradition of not giving the Yukon’s Information and Privacy Commissioner the authority to make orders.

The commissioner can only make recommendations if she believes a public body has screwed up. The government can then put her recommendations on a shelf where they will be promptly ignored.

It would be up to a complainant to take the government to court if it rejects a recommendation by the commissioner. That’s a ridiculous waste of resources. Most people don’t have the patience, time or money to do that.

If elected officials or bureaucrats are trying to hide something that’s exactly what they’re hoping for — that the complainant will eventually give up.

Despite all the worthwhile clauses in the new legislation, if court is the only option when the government doesn’t follow the rules then the legislation fails at its fundamental purpose which is to make government more transparent and easier to access.

Current Information and Privacy Commissioner, Diane McLeod-McKay, suggested alternatives to court. She proposed the government create an adjudicator with the power to oversee complaints and make orders.

She also suggested the Yukon could also follow Newfoundland and Labrador’s ATIPP Act, which requires that the public body is the one to go to court before it’s allowed to refuse a recommendation.

The Liberal’s ignored both of those suggestions.

This is not the only place where the legislation is a disappointment.

The new law includes the ability for cabinet to require municipalities be covered under the same or similar rules that apply to the territorial government.

But instead of wielding that power, Mostyn and the rest of the Liberals have told the municipalities not to worry. If they want to be covered under the new law they can be, but it’s totally voluntary.

It’s unbelievable that this is something that has to be put into writing, but everyone needs to read this next sentence slowly:

Democratically-elected governments should not have the option to opt out of transparency.

All of Canada’s provinces have some sort of freedom of information legislation covering municipalities.

It’s not just major cities like Toronto that participate. The Town of Hinton, Alberta — with a population of less than 10,000 — has a website laying out exactly how to fill out a freedom of information request.

Mostyn and his colleagues had a chance to be leaders in the North but again refused to make the tough decision.

Cabinet didn’t want to risk ruffling feathers with the Yukon’s mayors and councils and chose those relationships over the public’s right to know.

Yukon municipalities have expressed concerns over the idea of being covered under the legislation. Most of those boil down to worries about not having the capacity or cash to follow the rules.

Those are not good enough excuses. The Yukon’s new rules won’t be law until the regulations are written. According to the department that could take up to two years. Two years is enough time for municipalities to get their affairs in order. It’s enough time for the territory to offer training about the act and find ways to help municipalities to follow it. That might mean finding some extra money from both levels of government but that cash is in the public good.

Instead the Liberals are doing a great disservice to the people they are supposed to represent.

Yukon municipal leaders should show their communities leadership and choose to be involved. Otherwise the territory is missing out on an opportunity for better government. Much like Mostyn wrote years ago, we still need better government. “Without it, we’re all gonna suffer.”