Ontario must get with the times on transparency, watchdog says

TheGlobeandMail.com – news/national
Published Tuesday, Jun. 21, 2011.   Karen Howlett – Toronto

Ontario’s Ombudsman is calling on Premier Dalton McGuinty to embrace the worldwide trend toward open government by giving the public real-time access to information about programs and services.

The practice of having to file a complicated access-to-information request is “literally last century,” André Marin said in his annual report, released on Tuesday.

“People want information on what their government is doing, they want it to be easy to find and understand, and they want it now,” he said.

Mr. Marin has been urging the McGuinty government for several years to open up the so-called MUSH sector – municipalities, universities, school boards and hospitals – to scrutiny. The government has in part responded to that pressure by making the province’s 156 hospitals part of Ontario’s Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act.

In his sixth annual report, Mr. Marin is going one step further by asking the government to make information available without the public having to ask for it.

“The new expectation of openness isn’t what you get from filing a complicated access-to-information request,” he said.

Mr. Marin cited the controversy surrounding last summer’s G20 summit as an example of just how “destructive” secrecy can be.

“Exactly a year ago this week, at the G20 summit in Toronto,” he said, “we saw a massive violation of civil rights on our streets.”

In response to a separate report Mr. Marin issued last December that was highly critical of the government’s handling of the G20, Mr. McGuinty acknowledged that his officials acted too quickly and kept the public in the dark when they handed police special powers that violated citizens’ civil liberties.

Mr. Marin’s earlier report noted that the government quietly passed a G20 regulation last summer that left Torontonians under the impression they could be arrested merely for passing by the summit security fence without identification.

Had the government been open about these new powers, at the very least people would have had fair warning that their rights were no longer what they believed them to be, Mr. Marin said. Rather, he said, it is more likely that the regulation would have been challenged, found contrary to the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and scrapped altogether.

Ultimately, that is precisely what happened, said Mr. Marin, who has often been a thorn in the side of the McGuinty government for a number of highly public investigations. He himself endured the unwelcome glare of publicity last year as he battled to keep his job and finally secured a second, five-year term.

Mr. Marin said the government did end up scrapping the G20 regulation and vowed that in future the public will be warned if there are any changes to police powers.

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