Liberals hiding behind outdated access to information laws, commissioner says

Suzanne Legault, Information Commissioner of Canada, holds a press conference the the National Press Theatre in Ottawa on Thursday, June 8, 2017, to discuss the tabling of her 2016-2017 Annual Report in Parliament.
Suzanne Legault, Information Commissioner of Canada, holds a press conference the the National Press Theatre in Ottawa on Thursday, June 8, 2017, to discuss the tabling of her 2016-2017 Annual Report in Parliament. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

In spite of its campaign on accountability and transparency, the Trudeau government is hiding behind the very law it has repeatedly said is out of date, the federal information commissioner wrote in a report tabled Thursday.

Introducing her 2016-17 annual report, Information Commissioner Suzanne Legault began by reminiscing about her feelings of hope following the Liberal win in the 2015 election.

READ MORE: Liberal government postpones initial Access to Information reforms

She recalled Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s platform pledges to reform the Access to Information Act, release government information in user-friendly formats, expand the powers of the commissioner and expand the law to include the prime minister’s and ministers’ offices, among others.

It wasn’t long before that positivity was stifled.

“In March 2017, the government announced its plans to delay the first phase of the [law’s] reform, citing the need to ‘get it right,’” Legault wrote in her report.
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“Our investigations reveal, once again, that the [Access to Information Act] is being used as a shield against transparency and is failing to meet its policy objective to foster accountability and trust in our government.”

Delaying reform

Though the Liberals’ maiden budget, issued in 2016, included funding for some transparency initiatives, there was none in the 2017 budget.

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That, coupled with the fact there is no imminent reform or overarching direction on transparency for federal departments, signals a lack of dedication on the issue, Legault wrote.

Treasury Board President Scott Brison has acknowledged a need for change and last year proposed a two-step reform: a number of early measures to be followed by a full review of the law in 2018.

Speaking to reporters Thursday, Brison said he remains on board with his government’s pledge to reform the act.

“This is important,” he said.  “We’re also going to legislate a mandatory review every five years so at no point in the future the Access to Information Act becomes as out of date as it is today.”

Information ‘black hole’

Almost 35 years ago, the Canadian government ratified its citizens right to access information produced in federal institutions.

The act allows people who pay $5 to ask for everything from expense reports and audits to correspondence and briefing notes. Requests are supposed to be answered within 30 days, unless agencies have legitimate reasons for an extension.

The strength of the law was questioned from the get-go, but it was a start; it afforded the public an inside look at some documents government would otherwise keep hidden.

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Despite repeated calls from information commissioners, transparency advocates and opposition MPs (including the Liberals, when they were in opposition), the law hasn’t changed much since it was introduced in 1983.

READ MORE: Feds eliminate extra access-to-info fees

For years, Legault has been urging successive governments to extend the act so it includes all branches of the government – a pledge the Liberals made prior to their majority win in 2015.

As it stands, the Prime Minister’s Office, ministers and their offices, the House of Commons and the Senate — which together form the seat of our democracy—are not subject to access to information requests.

“Ministers and their parliamentary secretaries, ministers of state and the prime minister are public office holders who make decisions that impact Canadians,” Legault wrote in her report.

READ MORE: The access-to-information system is busting: information czar

“These decisions also impact how tax dollars are spent. Ministers (and their staff) need to be accountable in disclosing information relating to the administration of their departments.”

Without the provision, minister’s offices risk becoming, in the words of a 2011 Supreme Court Decision, an information “black hole.”

Citing an example she encountered this past year relating to a request submitted to Fisheries and Oceans, Leagault cautioned against departments using the exemption as a shield; just because a document is located in a minister’s office doesn’t mean it is exempt, as DFO apparently tried to argue.

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Red alert

A number of key institutions that possess valuable information for Canadians showed declines in performance, said Legault, an ombudsman for users of the law.

In terms of timeliness, the RCMP, Canada Revenue Agency, Correctional Service and Global Affairs received F grades, while National Defence and Health Canada were branded with the even more serious Red Alert status.

Speaking to reporters Thursday, Legault said Trudeau’s promises of making the government more open and accountable must be accompanied by action.

“If you want to truly change a whole culture in a very large bureaucracy, you’re going to have to make a concerted effort,” she said. “There are going to have to be clear messages from the prime minister, the responsible ministers, the clerk of the Privy Council … Sadly, champions for transparency are absent.”

With files from The Canadian Press

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