Liberals say Harper government to blame for ‘F’ grade on access to information

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau rises during question period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Wednesday, Sept.27, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

OTTAWA – The Liberals are blaming the previous Harper government for the failing grade they received in an independent audit of the Access to Information system, saying the Conservatives left behind a badly damaged system.

The national freedom of information audit found the federal access system is bogged down to the point where, in many cases, it simply doesn’t work.

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The annual audit focused on the federal access regime this year – given Justin Trudeau’s election campaign promises of increased transparency – and concluded it is faring worse than in the latter years of the Conservative government.

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“The Liberal government has a long way to go if it is to deliver on its promises of transparent government,” the audit report says.

The audit was funded by national industry group News Media Canada, which represents more than 800 print and digital titles across the country. It was researched and prepared independently by a team led by lead author Fred Vallance-Jones, who teaches journalism at University of King’s College in Halifax.

A total of 428 requests sent to different levels of government were included in the analysis.

In their 2015 platform on open and transparent government, Trudeau’s Liberals stated that “transparent government is good government,” the report notes. “It’s a sentiment shared by just about every opposition party that seeks power, but often falls out of favour once power is achieved.”

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The researchers found the federal system continues to be far slower and less responsive than provincial and municipal freedom of information regimes.

“I think ultimately Canadians deserve better than what they’re getting from their federal government when it comes to Access to Information,” Vallance-Jones said in an interview.

Jean-Luc Ferland, a spokesman for Treasury Board President Scott Brison, said Wednesday the report “confirms that the Harper government left behind a badly outdated and damaged system.”

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In the House of Commons, Trudeau said his government continued to “raise the bar on openness and transparency” with a bill introduced in June that would make the first significant changes to the access law since it took effect in 1983.

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However, the researchers also express concern about that bill, accusing the Liberals of backing off on some of their reform promises.

While the bill would give the federal information commissioner long-sought power to order disclosure of records the government would prefer stay secret, that proposed power is being tempered by an automatic right by federal bodies to challenge any aspect of those orders before the Federal Court, the report says.

The federal access act allows people who pay $5 to request records ranging from correspondence and studies to expense reports and meeting minutes. Agencies must answer requests within 30 days or provide a reason why more time is needed.

Requests from the audit team to various federal agencies dealt with subjects such as the impact of climate change on agricultural production, illegal entries into Canada and the cost of restoring home postal delivery to addresses that lost it.

Just one-quarter of requests to federal government departments, agencies and Crown corporations were answered within the 30-day limit.

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One-third of the requests had not received a response by the end of the audit, which means those requests were outstanding for three months or more, with most closer to four months.

Information on pages eventually released under the federal access law can be blacked out for a variety of reasons including national security, legal privilege and commercial confidentiality.

The federal government received a grade of ‘F’ for disclosure of information in the audit.

The researchers found progress on the elimination of fees charged for information. But they encountered a continued reluctance to provide electronic data in computer-readable formats such as a spreadsheet – particularly at the federal level, despite the Liberal government’s commitment to make data available in this way.

The audit also points to “trouble spots” at the provincial, municipal and territorial levels, including instances of high fees, delays and refusal to release data in computer-readable formats, the report adds. “But none is as thoroughly gummed up as the federal system.”

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