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Tuesday 16 July 2019
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Commentary

FYIA revised

PAOLO KERNAHAN
PAOLO KERNAHAN

THE ONLY thing worse than the Government’s attempts at foisting amendments to the Freedom of Information Act on the public was the Attorney General’s laughable PR around it. About 30 civil society groups put their hands up with strenuous objections to the proposed changes. The Government came like a thief in the night with Clause 7 but like one of those thieves knocking over every pot, pan, and putting his foot in a mop bucket all kinda thing.

Adjustments to the FOIA proposed extending the time frame within which a state body must respond to an applicant’s request for government-held information from 30 days to 90 days. The amendment also pushed for tacking on an additional 90 days for “processing” of a request by the Office of the Attorney General should a request be denied.

The AG said he was taken aback by the strong public reaction to what, he felt, was a fairly routine tinkering with a piece of legislation. Just like that, Clause 7 was shaping up to be this administration’s Section 34.

At a news conference, Faris Al-Rawi continued to try selling the days-old fish no one wanted: the nobility at the heart of Clause 7. Just by the way, that news conference was also ostensibly meant to announce an update on the Jack Warner extradition matter. A curious pairing of two completely unrelated issues, to be sure.

It was a miscellaneous provisions news conference.

Like a back-in-times DJ, the Attorney General started off with the oldie-but-goldie “Iz de UNC whey dooeeit” dubplate. The reason reports on the FOIA haven’t been forthcoming is because, according to the AG, the previous administration hadn’t prepared any during their entire term in office. This complicated affairs for the current administration, given that they hadn’t done their FOIA homework either and now had two sets to complete. Whatever man!

From the reports that were eventually cobbled together, super sleuth Al-Rawi pointed the media to an interesting trend. His office had uncovered “an industry” created around the FOIA by UNC attorneys, specifically of the taxonomy: Advocatus Mendacitus. Al-Rawi explained to the media that UNC attorneys were milking the system. These wily creatures are manipulating legal loopholes to make a killing on just a shilling’s worth of work. That one is doing about as well on sales as is the AG’s days-old fish.

What Al-Rawi referred to as a “legal loophole” looks more like inefficiency in the system. At any rate, the State’s first port of call was to further bureaucratise the administration of the FOIA. It’s too bad we don’t have someone in the AG’s office similarly obsessed with avaricious landlords/milkmaids milking the State through questionable property rental agreements.

So the AG was sent back, yet again, to redraft faulty legislative amendments. Perhaps we’ll soon hear accounts of how much this redrafting of flawed out-of-the-box legislation is costing the taxpayer. Still, the larger issue here is the Government’s clumsy attempts at weakening the FOIA by making its already clunky administration more so.

Perhaps applicants would just throw in the towel, frustrated by a process that stretches out over many months. Rather than repair the institutional failures hobbling the administration of the legislation, the Government’s solution was to make it even worse.

“Paperwork takes time!” says the AG. A resounding endorsement for institutionalised incompetence and glacial delivery. Next, we’ll soon see an extension of the time it takes to get a birth paper. It will be so drawn out your birth certificate will be printed on the front and your death certificate on the back.

The Government had its knuckles rapped on FOIA tampering and for good reason. This legislation is one of the few avenues of justice and transparency for ordinary citizens. Going on the remarks of the Attorney General, it’s easy to get the impression the only people using the system are political troublemakers and grifters. It’s more likely to be the case that there are more people being abused by the FOIA than abusing it.

We live in a remarkably secretive society on the governance front. Prising information from the State has always been a difficult process. The FOIA was intended to strengthen democracy by giving ordinary citizens access to information to which they have a legitimate right.

The AG would have been better served by applying the appropriate fixes to the administration of the act, rather than weighing it down in copious red-and-ready tape.

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