Even before Attorney General Faris Al-Rawi could get to Parliament to defend amendments to Clause 7 of the Act with the long name—the Freedom of Information (FOI) section—Fitzgerald Hinds, Minister in the Ministry of the Attorney General and Legal Affairs, was saying this in a Facebook post:
“Alarmist in the extreme! The amendments that we propose to the Freedom of Information Act are necessary! You appointed us to be the government to solve the nation’s problems and steer the country along a smoother path. The amendments are timely! They are in the interest of the poor people, whose money is being cheated away, by posers and crooks. They neither affect the right of public access to information, nor the freedoms guaranteed under our Constitution. Plenty noise over nothing!! We will meet them head-on! They are misleading the public!”
But Al-Rawi has since reached Parliament and adjusted the proposed wait time for response/service to an information request from 90 days to 45 days. He had clearly been following the firestorm of outrage over his proposed amendments and, though he was assured of their simple majority passage, conceded that the original time was indeed too long. But why triple the original wait time of 30 days? He said it was because paperwork took time.
He also went on to explain at least two more proposals— judicial review of an FOI denial and the Attorney General being the gatekeeper of service of FOI requests. In respect of the first, he wanted the Attorney General to have a further 90 days to review a denial and to close a loophole in the law which allowed “UNC lawyers” to receive requested information but to turn around and claim thousands, even millions of dollars in legal costs. And in respect of the second, he thought that because of disharmony in many government agencies it would be more effective to pass them through the AG’s ministry where they would have the advantage of being streamlined.
But even before he could offer these adjustments in response to public pushback about a lack of transparency and accountability as well as about the need to facilitate the public’s right to know and take steps to reject government mismanagement and corruption, Hinds was willing to sacrifice level-headed judgement and good governance practice for a characteristically swift combative support of his party and the administration of which he is a part.
Let’s go back to his Facebook post a bit. The noise against Al-Rawi’s amendments was “alarmist in the extreme!” For the amendments were “necessary” and “timely”. “We will meet (the gainsayers) head-on,” he trumpeted.
What about the need for public consultation first in such an important matter? Or does he not appreciate the antsiness of the public about government transparency and the public right to know? Does he not respect the widespread sensitivity in the public consciousness about the Government withholding, delaying, hiding information about its dealings?
Surely, he appreciates that the wisdom of the cabinet is insufficient to run a country? Perhaps not. The most revealing aspect of his post is the following declaration: “You appointed us to be the government to solve the nation’s problems and steer the country along a smoother path.”
So? For him, the vote in the general election entitles him to not expect or look for guidance or insight from journalists, columnists, other opinion writers, civil society, the Opposition?
His senior colleague, Faris Al-Rawi, has changed tack somewhat, in response to objections, if not from Opposition Leader Kamla Persad-Bissessar, no doubt from the Law Association, newspaper editorials, and people like Afra Raymond and Ramesh Maharaj.
I suspect that the recent availability of reports about data in the Freedom of Information Unit was as a result of Raymond’s advocacy on TV the other day—data like the number of requests made to public authorities, the number of decisions that an applicant was not entitled to access, compliance rate, the number of applications for judicial review, and the percentage of applications resulting in judicial review.
But Hinds has now to sing from the same choir book as Al-Rawi, who has suggested that his new positions were informed by consultations with his cabinet colleagues.
I applaud the speed with which Al-Rawi has submitted to extra-cabinet wisdom, but I wonder if he or anyone else in the administration might explain to me how come the amendments to the Act with the long name have arisen after a UNC activist won a Privy Council judgment that he can seek judicial review of his request for information on the premature closure of the State’s case against Malcolm Jones.
THE AUTHOR is a political analyst and a retired UWI lecturer