By AVA TURNQUEST
Tribune Chief Reporter
AS the general election looms, activists fear that the government’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) 2017 is heading for the same fate of its predecessor, which was passed by the previous government months before the 2012 election but never enacted.
A pressure group of more than 20 civil society organisations (CSOs) are calling on the government to clearly elucidate the next steps needed for the enactment of Freedom of Information legislation, as they fear the legislation is “stuck in limbo”.
The outcome would be ironic, according to Matt Aubry, executive director of the Organisation for Responsible Governance, given the extensive public consultation process undertaken by this administration.
“There’s nothing publicly available to tell us what the status of it is, what the next steps are,” Mr Aubry said. “We would love to see not only what is required to drive an enactment date but when would that enactment date be.
“If they don’t enact it, it puts it in the exact same scenario that it was before. It would seem that if the current government is trying to put things in place that they’ve done, it makes sense and seems like a low-lying fruit that it’s one of those things they can knock out. It would be an easy way so we don’t follow the exact same pattern of what happened last time.”
Mr Aubry said: “We feel like the public needs clarity on what has happened. The last we heard is that the (Attorney General) said she didn’t know if a plan would be enacted before election. We’ve asked and awaiting response from the government on what are the factors that would determine enactment.”
Mr Aubry said his organisation has done a lot of work educating sitting government members, and the wider public, about the importance of the legislation to the democratic process. He said that while some of the recommendations offered by civil society were not accepted by the government, the legislation that was passed earlier this month was still great start.
“There are a lot of things that need to take place,” he said. “We understand from the initial consultations that there would be needed to be a period of intensive education and training on the part of the government to set up all the different functions. It can’t be left up to a new group, who could very well get in and say let’s toss this out. Educating the government still needs to happen, so does the (educating the) public.
“We want to know what’s happening on their side so we can position ourselves to take over that effort so the public and media are ready and know how to utilise this bill, and why it’s important.”
An FOIA was passed by the Ingraham administration shortly before the 2012 general election but did not have an enforcement date. When the Progressive Liberal Party assumed office, the government said the legislation would need significant changes. In December, 2016, Minister of Education Jerome Fitzgerald tabled another version of FOI legislation.
However, the bill that was passed in February presented several “big changes” when compared to its predecessors, according to Mr Fitzgerald, the minister with responsibility for FOIA.
The CSO collective includes Citizens for a Better Bahamas, Our Carmichael, The Organisation for Responsible Governance, We The People, Save The Bays, The Abaco Chamber of Commerce, The Nassau Institute, reEarth, HeadKnowles Foundation, Grand Bahama Human Rights Association, Waterkeepers Bahamas, The Bahamas Press Club, The Bahamas Chamber of Commerce and Employers’ Confederation, It’s Our Turn, Young Marine Explorers, Civil Society Bahamas, The Bahamas Retailers Federation, The Coalition to Save Clifton, Rise Bahamas, Citizens for Justice and BREEF.