If it wasn’t already obvious, Friday’s session of Parliament made the Progressive Labour Party’s distaste for public access to information, and, let’s face it, accountability, abundantly clear. Despite being the party that tabled and passed the legislation in July 2010, the PLP doesn’t much like being told to comply with its own sunshine law.
Hence, we had Lieutenant-Colonel David Burch, the Minister of Public Works, stating that he had told a government department to defy an order by Information Commissioner Gitanjali Gutierrez and withhold from the public a report about the spending of millions of taxpayer dollars on a failed sports centre.
Colonel Burch was so appalled that the Government might actually have to account for why it ploughed so much money into the doomed venture, that he launched an attack on The Royal Gazette for daring to submit a Pati request, and on the commissioner for coming to the outlandish conclusion that the public have a right to know where their cash went.
Referring to Ms Gutierrez by the last name of her husband, Fabian Minors, a former One Bermuda Alliance election candidate, was a clumsy, cheap and misogynistic potshot, which is unlikely to have rattled the former global human rights lawyer too much.
It was par for the course for Colonel Burch, who resorts to belittling others when he has nothing of substance to say. But his allegation that Ms Gutierrez was “going out of her way” to assist this newspaper was deeply concerning.
The keystone of the PLP’s Pati Act is the notion that publicly held records belong to us all and should be available to us all, unless there is a compelling reason for them to be withheld. The commissioner is an independent arbiter, tasked with ensuring that very principle is upheld.
Ms Gutierrez published a detailed decision regarding her order that the Sandys 360 report be released.
Colonel Burch provided no evidence to show she had overstepped her authority or come to her conclusion because of a bias in favour of The Royal Gazette. There is a proper process for public authorities and Pati requesters to follow if they disagree with the commissioner’s decisions, and it doesn’t involve snide, baseless insinuations made under the protection of parliamentary privilege.
But Colonel Burch wasn’t the only government politician who used their valuable time in the House of Assembly on Friday to bemoan the normal operations of a free press in a developed democracy.
Michael Scott, the PLP backbencher and former Attorney-General, delivered a brief and barely coherent outburst at 9.30pm because he had been sent some questions from a reporter in his capacity as deputy chairman of the Criminal Injuries Compensation Board.
The board met only five times between January 2017 and December 2018, according to information released under Pati, and the reporter had the temerity to ask Mr Scott and other CICB members if they had received any payments from the public purse for sitting on the board.
The response provided under Pati said they had not received payments and the reporter sought to double-check that fact.
Specifically, Mr Scott was asked if he was referring to his role on the CICB when he told the Supreme Court last year that he would be paid $5,715 a quarter for a board position.
The answer was no; it was the shipping board. But it would have been too easy for thin-skinned Mr Scott to simply reply to the reporter to say that.
Inexplicably linking the CICB questions, Colonel Burch’s statement on Sandys 360 and a newspaper report on plummeting business confidence, he told Parliament: “This whole Pati-Royal Gazette dance that’s going on is getting a bit sick, really, and I call on ... The Royal Gazette just to stop it. To just stop it. I don’t intend to answer you.”
Mr Scott’s remarks are embarrassing and not just because they make little sense. He stood up in the House and suggested that it was an affront for a reporter to seek information about a publicly funded board and to ask questions about payments to members of that board.
But perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised. Leadership comes from the top and Mr Scott is no doubt taking his cues from David Burt, the Premier, who verbally attacked a journalist from The Royal Gazette in Parliament in February, for reporting on a sports betting company’s attempts to hire staff here.
Yet Mr Burt said in the House of Assembly in June 2018: “Journalists have a job to do, and where they do it, no matter how uncomfortable it may be, their work should be respected.
“A truly democratic society cannot be said to prosecute, persecute or move to silence the media.”
When the PLP passed Pati in Parliament, Ewart Brown, then the Premier, heralded it as the “fulfilment of the Government’s longstanding pledge to operate in the light of public scrutiny”.
But maybe Colonel Burch, Mr Scott and others are finding the light a little too bright. Perhaps the PLP thought it could pass a sunshine law in a great show of commitment to good governance, although it was ultimately brought into force under the OBA in 2015, but secretly suspected no one would bother to use it.
How else to explain Colonel Burch’s bizarre claim that we have tried to “litigate to death all aspects of the arrangements surrounding” Sandys 360, when what we have actually done is submit a few Pati requests to try to find out what compelled successive governments to hand over at least $5.3 million and where that money went.
Worryingly, legislation to exempt the Government’s Financial Policy Council from Pati was tabled on Friday, a move opposed by the Information Commissioner’s Office in the absence of a “robust and formal transparency framework” for the advisory body.
Should we expect more amendments to come, in a drip-drip attempt to neuter the law? The reporter attacked by Mr Scott has asked him for an apology, also to be delivered in Parliament.
In an e-mail to him, the reporter wrote: “Contrary to what you suggested in Parliament, there is nothing untoward about reporters asking questions about the spending of public money. It is normal practice and I would respectfully suggest that you are aware of that fact ...
“If you want to tell the public about the good work being done by the CICB and give clarity on the confusing and seemingly inaccurate figures provided for the CICB in recent Budget books, I will be glad to meet with you.”
We would further urge Mr Scott and his party colleagues to make better use of their time in Parliament, cease trying to bully reporters and quit portraying every question about public spending that comes their way as politically motivated.
We call on them just to stop it. To just stop it. We intend to keep using Pati as a vital tool in our reporting and to keep holding public officials accountable on behalf of our readers.