By Kate Jackman-Atkinson, Neepawa Banner & Press
NEEPAWA, Man. — We’ve all heard about the mushroom treatment, “Keep them in the dark and feed them [manure].” I wonder if this is the philosophy our current provincial government is following? If they get their way, Manitobans will have to work a lot harder to be well-informed about the issues that impact their lives and communities. Two bills currently before the legislature, Bill 8, the Government Notices Modernization Act, and Bill 19, the Planning Amendment Act, will make significant changes to the process by which governments must notify the public about changes at local and provincial levels.
Right now, if you want to know about upcoming actions that fall under the Environment Act, for example, what pesticides are being applied to a local golf course, you can find this information in a local media outlet, where by law, it must be published. Bill 8 would do away with this requirement. Instead, it would only require that notices relating to 24 statutes be published in the Manitoba Gazette, the government’s newspaper of record, which would be made available online and free to the public.
Among other things, Bill 19 will no longer require that planning boards advertise public hearings twice in the 40 days preceding the hearing. Under the proposed changes, notice of a hearing would not need to be published in a newspaper or posted in any location if the notice is posted on a publicly accessible website of the applicable planning district or municipality and remains posted on the website for the 27 day period before the hearing.
It’s no secret that newspapers make money from publishing public notices, but that’s not why I think this is a bad idea. I think these changes will make it harder for Manitobans to be informed about the issues that will have an impact on their lives. Moving notices to the Gazette greatly reduce their accessibility. Not only is it not accessible to those without internet access, most Manitobans don’t even know the Gazette exists and of those that do, few have sought it out. Businesses that want to reach customers advertise in local media, of all types, because they know that’s where people are, this simply isn’t the case with the Gazette.
Moving notices to the Gazette will also result in a loss of the accountability that comes with having notices published by an independent party. By using their own publication, governments could easily engage in dishonest practices, such as changing the wording or making certain notices harder to find. The government doesn’t always want to make the public aware of what it’s doing and by not having to use independent media, it’s that much easier to keep people in the dark.
There is a reason that certain types of legislation have notice requirements, because changes impact people’s lives. By not making governments advertise notices where people can easily see them, the government is cutting people out of the democratic process. Not only that, but when they find the Gazette online, Manitobans will have to filter through a number of notices, most of which won’t impact them, to find the few that will.
I am certainly not opposed to updating the legislation surrounding notices. A changing media landscape means that it might be time to look at other ways of informing the population. Putting up posters around town, automated phone calls or emails, skywriting or hiring someone to walk around town wearing a sandwich board would all help people be informed about the policy changes that will impact their lives. But what’s being proposed puts this information further from Manitobans, not closer.
Technology is supposed to make people’s lives easier, not harder, so the common thinking goes. In moving government notices to an online version of the Manitoba Gazette, the government has proven that that isn’t always the case.