Conservatives flatly reject recommendations to open up the country’s most powerful institutions to more public scrutiny
Toronto Star – Bruce Campion-Smith
OTTAWA–The federal government has rejected calls to modernize and expand Canada’s Access to Information Act, despite warnings that the program is collapsing under bureaucratic foot-dragging and political negligence.
Justice Minister Rob Nicholson this week refused to act on a Commons committee report urging changes to improve the right of Canadians to know more about the workings of the federal government. That includes a recommendation to open up Canada’s most powerful institutions – Parliament and the courts – to more scrutiny.
He also rejected a recommendation to make cabinet confidences – now strictly off limits – subject to access requests.
"It’s terribly frustrating," said Liberal MP Paul Szabo, chair of the committee that produced the report. "There is a systemic problem where the government is averse to disclosure and is fighting the system and there’s no leadership within the government," he said.
And while the Conservatives have long boasted about enhancing accountability in government, they "do exactly the opposite," said Szabo (Mississauga South).
The problem starts at the top with an "absence of leadership" to signal that access to information is important, said Michel Drapeau, a lawyer and expert on the information legislation.
"It requires a nod from the top," he said.
Drapeau took issue with the some of the committee recommendations, saying the system is so broken that it was pointless to merely tinker around the edges.
But he said the government can’t claim that the system is working well when reports and anecdotal evidence suggest otherwise.
"(Access to information) right now is a concept. In reality, in doesn’t work. It certainly doesn’t work in accordance with the spirit and the letter of the law," he said.
Drapeau noted that while legislation says departments should respond within 30 days to information requests, Canadians can often wait 120 days or more. And when the information does arrive, it has usually been heavily edited. Canadians who complain to the information commissioner can face another long delay.
Such delays play into the hands of the government and help keep sensitive information under wraps until it’s often no longer of interest, Drapeau said.
Drapeau has called for a sweeping probe by Auditor General Sheila Fraser to review Ottawa’s performance on access to information.
In June, the Commons committee on access to information, privacy and ethics issued two reports urging changes to improve access-to-information legislation as well as the privacy act.
On privacy, the committee wanted better oversight of the collection of personal information. And it sought to strengthen provisions on the disclosure of personal information of Canadians to foreign states.
But in responses posted on the committee website on Wednesday, Nicholson suggested the proposed reforms were unnecessary and even unworkable.
Expanding the power and mandate of the information commissioner would change the position from "an ombudsman model towards a quasi-judicial model, which would not be consistent with other agents of Parliament," Nicholson wrote.
On the privacy recommendations, Nicholson said that any changes must be "carefully considered."
He said Ottawa’s response to issues such as child abduction, forced marriages or worldwide health threats would be "seriously hampered" by the proposed recommendations to the privacy law.
He said law enforcement and security agencies require a "flexible approach" and must be able to share information "quickly and efficiently."
Privacy experts have warned that Canada’s outdated Privacy Act does not cover modern technologies, such as surveillance cameras and DNA samples from suspects.
"We’re very disappointed, actually," said Chantal Bernier, assistant privacy commissioner. "While we agree with the minister that privacy is well protected in Canada, we feel we can do better."
With files from The Canadian Press