Put teeth in Access to Information Act
TheStar.com – opinion/editorials – New Democrat MP Pat Martin tries to revive Canada’s moribund Access to Information Act.
Nov 22 2013. Editor
Each of Canada’s last seven prime ministers has resisted, circumvented and thwarted the Access to Information Act.
But Stephen Harper has raised the culture of concealment to new heights, denying Canadians access to everything from the cost of prison building to the results of scientific studies. Some of his ministers refuse to respond to requests for public documents. Others drag their feet so long that the information is outdated. One ministerial aide went so far as to “unrelease” material that had been prepared in response to an access request.
Federal bureaucrats routinely redact everything of public interest in departmental records. They charge Canadians prohibitive fees to compile and reproduce public data. Their managers impose so many layers of review and approval — culminating in the Prime Minister’s Office — that the principle of “timely access” enshrined in the act has become a pathetic joke.
“Our system is in crisis,” Winnipeg New Democrat MP Pat Martin declared this week as he prepared to table a bill proposing three improvements to the 30-year-old legislation.
Under his plan, the federal Information Commissioner would have the power to compel government departments to release information; review cabinet documents requested by a member of the public; and release administrative records of the House of Commons and Senate.
The veteran MP points out that two of these reforms were promised by Harper himself in his party’s 2006 election platform. He pledged that a Conservative government would give the Information Commissioner the power to order the release of information and review cabinet documents.
Martin’s private member’s bill — which is virtually identical to one he tabled two years ago, only to see the bill die on Parliament’s order paper — is a modest start. Legislative changes will not change attitudes in the Harper government, embolden risk-averse bureaucrats or speed up the blockage-laden process. Nor are his reforms likely to pass with the Conservatives holding 160 of Parliament’s 308 seats.
Treasury Board President Tony Clement, who is responsible for the Access to Information Act, made that clear in the House of Commons. “Last year our government processed nearly 54,000 access-to-information requests,”he boasted. He did not say how many requests the government received, turned down or was sitting on, which made the number all but meaningless.
It is unlikely the current government will open up. But less than two years remain in its mandate. At a minimum Martin’s bill will raise the bar for the opposition parties. At best, it could prod taxpayers into thinking about what is being withheld and how much power they want to entrust to a government that compulsively shuts them out.
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