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Newfoundland to hold independent review of contentious access-to-info law

Newfoundland and Labrador’s interim premier Tom Marshall attends his swearing-in ceremony in St.John's on Jan. 24, 2014.

PAUL DALY/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Interim premier Tom Marshall is promising a three-member committee of independent experts will review access-to-information restrictions that have been politically toxic for Newfoundland and Labrador's Tory government.

Marshall emerged Thursday from his first cabinet meeting since replacing Kathy Dunderdale to announce the review. It will include public hearings and a final report to the government, he said.

Any recommendations will be non-binding but taken seriously, Marshall said.

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"There's this general concern that the government is not as open and transparent as it should be," he said. "Let's discuss those concerns. I want to listen to the people and change that."

Dunderdale resigned after a bruising year of criticism and the loss of two government members who specifically cited concerns about information blocking as they spurned the Progressive Conservatives.

Amendments to the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act known as Bill 29 passed in June, 2012. They blocked the release of ministerial briefing notes, increased protections for cabinet records, hiked fees and allowed ministers to reject requests as "frivolous" or "vexatious."

Opposition critics accused the majority government of clamping down on information in part to thwart requests relating to the $7.7-billion Muskrat Falls project now under construction in Labrador.

Liberal Leader Dwight Ball, who has dismissed Marshall's push for a review as a smoke-and-mirrors tactic, has said he would repeal those changes if he wins the next election expected in 2015.

Marshall said the government will select the members who will serve on the committee, adding that he would like to have a report from its work for the fall legislative session.

"That would be very nice but I'm not going to order the committee to do anything. They'll take the time they need."

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Ball and other critics have also called for more public scrutiny of Crown corporation Nalcor Energy – especially now that it's overseeing Muskrat Falls and potential cost overruns.

Duff Conacher, a board member of Democracy Watch, has said it's especially troubling that the provincial auditor-general can't publicly release spending reports if they contain information that Nalcor deems to be commercially sensitive. He has called it "dangerously undemocratic" for Nalcor to decide what details to withhold.

Marshall said Thursday that such criticism may be valid.

"Obviously commercially sensitive information has to be protected," he said. "I think right across the country that certainly is the case, and maybe it is appropriate for the committee to determine that some independent person would determine what is confidential."

Marshall said the review speeds up a mandated five-year assessment of the access-to-information act that was due next year.

It comes as the race to replace Dunderdale as Progressive Conservative leader gets underway. Marshall has said he won't run and does not expect to be at the helm for more than three or four months.

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The only declared leadership contender so far, Corner Brook businessman and fishery magnate Bill Barry, launched his campaign Wednesday by declaring Bill 29 to be the most undemocratic thing he has ever seen.

Signs at his news conference drew a line through the number 29 and called for "democracy, transparency, accountability and humility."

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