It’s also a convenient excuse for a government that has failed to live up to that initial promise, as though somehow it’s Canadians who are to blame.
The American political journalist Michael Kinsley once described a gaffe as an instance when “a politician tells the truth — some obvious truth he (or she) isn’t supposed to say.” That would be an apt description of the dismissive remarks this past week from Federal Health Minister Patty Hajdu concerning Canadians’ access to information rights.
The Winnipeg Free Press reported on Wednesday that less than half of federal agencies and departments were fully processing freedom of information requests and that the vast majority of departments had opted against deeming those requests a critical service.
We already knew the system was not functioning as it should. In June, Information Commissioner Caroline Maynard warned that access to information requests were backlogged due to a lack of resources and that the Trudeau government was failing to provide those necessary resources.
Yet when she was asked about this Thursday in the House of Commons, Hajdu’s response was to wonder what all the fuss was about.
“Not once has a Canadian asked me to put more resources into freedom-of-information officers,” she declared.
If Canadians don’t care about this issue, then why did the Liberals make it a priority in their 2015 campaign? If the Liberals feel that this is less of a priority because of the pandemic, then that tells us a lot about how they actually feel about access to information.
As Maynard herself put it back in June, “Openness and transparency in government has never been more important than it is during the pandemic. … Access delayed is access denied.”
In fact, Maynard took to Twitter on Friday to remind Canadians about these very points and to respond directly to the health minister. Maynard said she was “very disappointed” in Hajdu’s comments and noted that she has “sounded the alarm” on the need for strong leadership in this area and the need for an increase in available resources.
Ironically, this all comes just a few weeks after Canada marked Right to Know Week, which is meant to highlight “an individual’s right to access government information, while promoting freedom of information as essential to both democracy and good governance.”
Clearly, we have work to do in this country.
By Friday, the minister was furiously backpedalling on her initial remarks. Patty Hajdu herself took to Twitter to concede that, yes, “openness and transparency are vital to our democracy” and that she would speak with the commissioner “to ensure we continue to respond to Canadians’ access to information requests.”
That’s much closer to the answer the minister should have given in the first place, but it still falls well short of an acknowledgement of the problem and a commitment to fixing it. In fairness, though, this shouldn’t all fall to the health minister. Where’s the prime minister?
It was Justin Trudeau who vowed in 2015 that he would “make information more accessible” and require that “transparency to be a fundamental principle across the federal government.” Instead, we got delay, inaction, and ultimately a worsening of the situation.
In early 2017, the previous information commissioner said the government uses the Access to Information Act “as a shield against transparency and is failing to meet its policy objective to foster accountability and trust in our government.”
Later that year, when the Liberals finally did present new legislation intended on increasing transparency, the commissioner found that it did the opposite. “If passed,” she said, the bill “would result in a regression of existing rights,”
That same year, an audit commissioned by the group News Media Canada gave the government a failing grade for its handling of access to information. The report found that the federal system was much slower and less responsive than its provincial and municipal counterparts and concluded that “the Liberal government has a long way to go if it is to deliver on its promises of transparent government.”
Unfortunately, that still appears to be true. Thanks to Hajdu’s comments, we now have a better understanding as to why that is.