Four years ago, the Couillard government promised to be the most transparent in Quebec history. On Thursday, it finally tabled a bill to allow citizens greater access to information.
Opposition parties say out-dated laws permitted the government to become secretive over the years, and this bill is a much-needed correction. The access to information minister, Kathleen Weil, admitted that over the years, government bodies haven’t been as transparent as they could be.
“Bad practices had developed,” she said.
Earlier this week, Quebec’s ombudsman reported some family doctors are refusing to take patients because of their age — or, in some cases, even ethnic origin. However, there are few details as to where and how this is happening.
The opposition said that in the past there was more information about the patients not being taken on by a GP.
“Last year, we had the information on people waiting on the guichet (the government’s online family doctor registry), we had them by age, and this year we only got it by classification of their level of care,” said Parti Quebecois health critic, Diane Lamarre.
Weil said if the new bill is passed, information from more than 3,000 government bodies will not only be easier to obtain, but some information will be made public automatically.
“Security issues, environmental issues, health issues — those are the ones where you should be proactive about making the information public,” she explained.
The new access to information bill is the second time government transparency has won out this week. In 2016, the Liberal government dismantled Quebec’s independent health watchdog, which had just published a report that found Quebec had the worst emergency room wait times in the western world. This week, the government said it would reinstate it.
“Considering the whole situation, the comments that were expressed and so on, we’ve decided to come back with it,” said the health minister, Gaetan Barrette.
Barrette said it was a cost-saving measure and not a move to muzzle criticism: “If I wanted to do that, it wouldn’t be back today. It’s as simple as that.”
But some in opposition say the effectiveness of the independent health watchdog has been weakened.
“People have gone away. We have lost the expertise, and it will take time to re-institute that expertise,” said Quebec Solidaire MNA, Amir Khadir.
There’s other criticism that this new bill is not the victory for government transparency that it appears to be. By tabling it so late in the session, that means it likely won’t get passed until and unless the next government to form in October agrees to adopt it.