Marshall promises whistleblower legislation, Muskrat Falls oversight and an ‘Open Government Initiative’
More than eight years after it was promised, the government says it will deliver whistleblower legislation this spring.
Chief Justice Derek Green reads the speech from the throne for 2014 at the legislature Wednesday. — Photo by Keith Gosse/The Telegram
In Thursday’s speech from the throne, the government promised to introduce whistleblower legislation, along with more transparency and accountability — collectively being called an “Open Government Initiative.”
It was the clearest indication so far that the government is doing whatever it takes to reverse the damage of Bill 29. For more than two years, the Tories have been battered in the court of public opinion because of a perception that their government is secretive and dismissive of public criticism.
The throne speech Thursday afternoon was delivered by Chief Justice Derek Green, filling in for Lt.-Gov. Frank Fagan, who was unavailable. For the most part, the speech offered a self-congratulatory look at the past 11 years since the PC party came to power.
But it was the sections on government transparency and accountability that seemed to send the clearest signal about where the government is headed in the immediate future.
Tom Marshall will be premier for only a few months until the Tories pick a new permanent leader, but during that time, it seems like he’s interested in taking things in a sharply different direction.
The PC party originally promised whistleblower legislation in the 2007 general election. In the 2008 throne speech, then-Lt.-Gov. John Crosbie said, “My government will introduce whistleblower legislation this year after appropriate consultation has taken place.”
That promise was broken in spectacular fashion. Not only did the Tories fail to pass whistleblower legislation in 2008, they put it off every year since then.
The party dropped it as a campaign promise when it was re-elected in 2011. Right up until the spring sitting of the legislature, there was no sign it would be coming any time soon.
For years, successive ministers have been saying whistleblower legislation needs more study, or it simply isn’t needed at all in Newfoundland and Labrador.
Last fall, Justice Minister Darin King categorically said it wasn’t going to happen.
“I have no intentions of tabling all-out whistleblower legislation in this House of Assembly this term. That is a clear-cut answer to that question,” he said.
Apparently it wasn’t all that clear-cut after all. When The Telegram caught up with King on Thursday, he said that when he said “term” he wasn’t actually referring to the four year term of office. He just meant that the legislation wouldn’t be tabled in the fall sitting of the legislature.
“I’m not sure where the word ‘term’ came from,” he said. “If I used it, it may have been in the heat of debate.”
But it looks like the complete reversal on whistleblower legislation is just a hint of what’s to come
Marshall signalled in the legislature that he’s ready to bring in rigorous, independent oversight of Nalcor and the Muskrat Falls project.
That’s also a sharp change for the Tories. In the past month, the government has been roundly criticized because Natural Resources Minister Derrick Dalley said he didn’t need to read a key report from the only independent agent doing oversight on the Muskrat Falls project, because he trusted what Nalcor was telling him.
And on top of it all, the throne speech also promised a loosely defined “Open Government Initiative” to go along with a comprehensive, independent review of the province’s access to information legislation.
All of it seemed like too-little, too-late for Liberal Leader Dwight Ball.
In his official response to the throne speech, he made no reference to whistleblower legislation at all, even though members of his party, alongside the NDP, have been doggedly pressing the government on that topic for years.
Ball’s response seemed almost like a competing Liberal throne speech, looking ahead to the government that he would lead after the 2015 election. He talked about holding health-care consultations across the province to come up with a comprehensive plan.
Ball’s speech seemed to conclude the throne speech was nothing but empty words.
“Newfoundlanders and Labradorians are tired of being told one thing, only to realize that this government will do something very different,” he said.
New Democrat Leader Lorraine Michael has plenty of cause to criticize Marshall’s government, too, but at least on the proposed whistleblower law, she said she’s happy to hear that it’s coming.
“It’s taken almost seven years, but it’s happening, and I very much thank the government for finally doing it, because our workers need that protection,” Michael said