End this needless secrecy
TheStar.com – Opinion/Editorial – Prying open the province’s tribunals would be an important public service. It would force them to operate with the same level of openness as is practiced in the courts.
Feb. 7, 2017. By STAR EDITORIAL BOARD
Some things never change. Politicians keep promising to open up government, to shed light on official goings-on at all levels. Then, year after year, decade after decade, the public keeps getting denied timely access to the most basic information about vital issues.
This culture of secrecy infects all governments and it spills over into official bodies of all sorts. That includes Ontario’s network of provincial tribunals, which rule on such important matters as workplace safety, police conduct, pay equity and human rights abuses.
The Toronto Star is challenging that secrecy in the courts, arguing for timely access to records of proceedings so the public can get the fullest possible picture of how the tribunals make decisions on key issues.
Right now that’s very difficult. Tribunals look and mostly act like regular courts, but unlike courts their records are not presumed to be publicly available by default. Instead, they are governed by provisions of Ontario’s Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act. And that means getting access to records of their activities can be long, frustrating and expensive.
The bottom line is that a law ostensibly aimed at ensuring “freedom of information” often does exactly the opposite. It can take so long to get records through the FOI process that they become irrelevant. The system stymies the ability of the public, usually through the news media, to know what quasi-judicial bodies like the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario and the Ontario Civilian Police Commission are doing in some of the most controversial areas of public policy.
Prying open the province’s tribunals would be an important public service. It would force them to operate with the same level of openness as the public has rightly come to expect from the court system. That, in turn, would make them more accountable.
At the same time, the new legal battle launched by the Star this week underlines the fact that freedom of information laws throughout the country have increasingly become obstacles to actually getting information.
In Ottawa, successive federal information commissioners have bemoaned the ability of officials to stonewall, delay and obfuscate in the face of requests for records.
Way back in 1998, John Grace publicly lamented that “a culture of secrecy still flourishes in too many high places.” And just two years ago, Suzanne Legault (who still holds the job) explicitly warned that the federal Access to Information Act has actually “moved us forward in a culture of secrecy” and evolved into a “shield against disclosure.”
This has happened, with variations, at pretty much all levels of government. And it hardly matters which party is in office. Invariably they come to power promising a new era of openness, then do little or nothing to change the system (although the Harper Conservatives did their level best to make things even worse). The ingrained habits of bureaucrats and office-holders change slowly, if at all.
It takes patience and persistence (as well as money) to challenge this institutional bias towards secrecy. And whether the issue is secrecy in Ottawa, at city hall or in Ontario’s extensive system of tribunals, the principle should be the same:
As a general rule, information collected on behalf of the public, at the public’s expense, should be available to the public.
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