Justin Trudeau goes halfway on access to information

Posted on June 22, 2017 in Governance Delivery System

TheStar.com – Opinion/Editorials – By failing to extend the Access to Information Act to cover the offices of the prime minster and his cabinet, the Trudeau Liberals have backtracked on their much-touted commitment to open government.
June 21, 2017.   By

If the federal government is using our outdated and ineffective access-to-information system as a “shield against transparency,” as Canada’s information watchdog recently claimed, then new rules tabled this week will do little to pierce the opacity of its highest offices.

By failing to extend the Access to Information Act to cover the offices of the prime minster and his cabinet, the Trudeau Liberals have backtracked on their much-touted commitment to open government.

The new legislation, the first major update to the act since it was passed more than 30 years ago, does offer a number of welcome and significant improvements to the current system.

For instance, it gives much-needed teeth to the information commissioner, allowing the office to force government departments and agencies to release information. Currently, the commissioner can only recommend the release of documents, and only overturn a decision by taking the government to court.

It also gives the watchdog the power to issue orders related to the timeliness of disclosures. Delays have become all-too-common in recent years, undermining the ability of citizens to hold government to account. In 2015-16, only 64 per cent of the 75,400 requests received were completed within the mandated 30 days. The information commissioner’s new powers will hopefully mitigate this problem.

What the legislation doesn’t do, however, is extend the disclosure rules to PMO or cabinet documents — one of the recommendations put forth a year ago by a House of Commons committee. Instead, the Liberals have tried to placate the public and transparency advocates by including a measure that would force ministerial offices to “proactively disclose” certain information.

But providing Canadians access to documents ministers know in advance will be released is a lousy substitute for the full openness Trudeau promised on his way to power.

Of course, some limits to access to information are necessary both for security reasons and to ensure the open and frank exchange among ministers. But in recent years, loopholes in the law have too often been used to keep politically inconvenient information secret. Federal officials have invoked so-called cabinet confidentiality with alarming frequency. In 2013-14, it was used a record 3,100 times – a 49-per-cent uptick over the previous year.

The new bill does little to shrink the loophole and thus ensure that Canadians have access to the facts and background that informed their government’s decisions.

It also fails to make changes to the exemptions that allow departments to black out information, a common frustration of journalists who regularly receive what seem to be unnecessarily censored documents. The new rules will force departments to give written justification as to why information is being blacked out. But the Liberal campaign promise that openness would be the government’s default position is clearly not realized in this bill.

The Trudeau government’s half-measures on transparency are hardly surprising. Every opposition party calls for a brighter spotlight to be shone on the current government, only to resist the glare once it’s in power. It’s no wonder it took 34 years to update our access to information laws. Democracy may love transparency, but governments generally do not.

That is, in part, why it’s so important that the new bill calls for the system to be revisited every five years. Yes, this provision is an important acknowledgement that our definition of transparency must evolve with technology. But, wittingly or not, it also entrenches a process that will shine an essential light – either on the access laws our country needs or on a government that would keep us from them.


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