Strengthen the act [Freedom of Information]

TheGlobeandMail.com – Opinion/Editorial- Strengthen the act
Published on Dec. 30, 2009 Last updated on Jan. 01, 2010

The Conservative government’s refusal to provide Parliament with documents on the Afghan detainee issue is the latest example of the need for reform of Canada’s freedom of information laws. We are now well familiar with the images of the blacked-out documents, which are becoming a visual metaphor for the Harper government’s position on freedom of information.

This is surprising, because in 2006, Stephen Harper and his Conservative Party came to office on the strength of a campaign that emphasized accountability. In the Conservative platform, the need to strengthen access to information legislation merited a chapter of its own.

In opposition, the Tories had recognized that the Access to Information Act needed to be improved and the powers of the Information Commissioner broadened to include the ability to compel the release of documents. But, as often happens, the move from opposition to government brought a different perspective on freedom of information.

Almost four years later, the Conservative government has failed to deliver on their promise to reform the Access to Information Act. In the Afghan detainee issue, the Harper government’s reflexive secrecy has gone a step further with a refusal to provide information to the House of Commons.

Politically, this may work. Few votes will be lost on a freedom of information issue, particularly one that doesn’t impact the daily lives of most people. But if Mr. Harper’s position becomes the norm for him and his successors, the long-term consequences will be severe. A continuing flow of information from the government to the public, Parliament and the media is essential to accountability. Without it, we can be sure that governments of every stripe will only tell us what they want us to hear.

The good government arguments for freedom of information may no longer get much traction in Mr. Harper’s councils. But the Tories should trust their better instincts and pursue principled reform of the Access to Information Act, promoting the cause of accountability that Mr. Harper has championed.

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