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EDITORIAL: Out in the open

Privacy commissioner Karen Rose delivered her recommendations to the Standing Committee on Communities Land and Environment Thursday. She wants to see cities, towns and post-secondary institutions to be brought under freedom of information law.
Privacy commissioner Karen Rose said earlier this year that cities, towns and post-secondary institutions should be brought under the province's freedom of information law. - File

Prince Edward Island took a much-needed step this week toward a more open and transparent government.

Tuesday in the legislature, Justice Minister Jordan Brown tabled amendments to P.E.I.’s Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy (FOIPP) Act. Among other aspects, the amendments would bring the province’s four largest municipalities — Charlottetown, Cornwall, Stratford and Summerside — along with UPEI, Holland College and College de L’Ile under the legislation.

Though this week’s move was an important one, it’s in no way laudable. It took so long to set the wheels in motion that this province is playing catch-up with practically every other jurisdiction across the country.

Calls for FOIPP reform have been made by the province’s privacy commissioner, UPEI’s student union and the university’s CUPE members, to name a few.

UPEI, Holland College and municipalities like Charlottetown have even gone as far as to implement their own protocols in recent years, though none of those were entrenched in provincial legislation.

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The fact that these amendments took so long to catch up to modern times is not surprising. Governments typically err on the side of protecting themselves rather than upholding the public’s fundamental right to know where and how their tax dollars are being spent.

This isn’t to say privacy isn’t important in some cases. The public’s personal information should be protected from compromise at all costs — so long as that cost doesn’t become a catch-all excuse for government to deny access to other documents or data it wants to keep under wraps.

The four municipalities and the post-secondary institutions that are the focus of these amendments, however, each receive plenty of our taxpayer dollars, and we have every right to hold them accountable for how those dollars are being used.

And these amendments don’t leave the act without its flaws. P.E.I.’s FOIPP legislation has been heavy on protection of privacy and not strong enough on freedom of information. While there are changes regarding requests for electronic documents, the amendments do too little to address better accessibility across the board.

The new rules also wouldn’t go into effect until April of next year and won’t be retroactive. Though it may be unrealistic to expect these bodies to have the capacity to comply with FOIPP after having been outside the legislation for so long, it’s unfortunate there’s nothing in the legislation saying they have to at least attempt to fulfil a request.   

Adding to that, there’s uncertainty about this bill’s fate should the legislative session end before the amendments are passed.

Flaws and all, it was well past time for government to take a fresh look at this legislation. If nothing else, tabling the amendments has brought the issue of FOIPP exactly where it belongs: in the public eye.

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