Liberals postpone full access-to-information reform to 2018

Treasury Board President Scott Brison answers a question in the House of Commons in February.
Treasury Board President Scott Brison answers a question in the House of Commons in February. THE CANADIAN PRESS

OTTAWA – The Liberal government says a full review of the outdated Access to Information Act will have to wait another two years.

A comprehensive examination of the access law, which people use to request federal government files, will begin in 2018, Treasury Board President Scott Brison said Thursday.

Meantime, the government plans to introduce legislation as soon as this year with quick fixes to the law, based on promises the Liberals made during the election campaign and consultations already under way.

“We’re looking for early wins in terms of the first phase of this,” Brison told a conference on open government.

READ MORE: Duty to document: What you need to know about access-to-info reform

The promised changes include giving the information commissioner the power to order government records to be released and ensuring the access law applies to the offices of the prime minister, his cabinet members and administrative institutions that support Parliament and the courts.

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A Commons committee recently began a study of the Access to Information Act, which has not been substantially updated since it took effect almost 33 years ago.

In addition, the government began a public consultation on transparency on Tuesday. People can go to to offer their views on what should be in the next federal strategy on open government.

Officials will also hold in-person discussions across the country and the resulting plan is to be released this summer.

READ MORE: Improving public access to information will make government better: Trudeau

Brison said a two-step process of access reform is needed. A initial bill “in the near term” will be followed by a deeper review in 2018, which is necessary to make sure “we get it right.”

The minister told the conference he believes that an open government is a more effective government.

The Access to Information Act allows people who pay $5 to ask for everything from expense reports and audits to correspondence and briefing notes. Departments are supposed to answer within 30 days or provide good reasons why they need more time.

However, the access system has been widely criticized as slow, antiquated and riddled with loopholes that allow agencies to withhold information rather than disclose it.

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A federal watchdog says the Access to Information Act should be extended to all branches of government – including the offices that support Parliament and the courts.In her report on modernization of the law, information commissioner Suzanne Legault also calls for tighter timelines in the processing of access requests and changes to ensure exceptions in the law protect only what is strictly necessary.

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