The healthy signs of convergence on access to information between the Conservative government and the Official Opposition are welcome.
Stand Up for Canada, the Conservatives’ election platform in 2006, said that, if they were victorious, they would give the federal Information Commissioner – at present, Suzanne Legault – the power to order the release of information. They also promised that, when the government refuses to provide some parts of the information a citizen has requested, on the ground of cabinet confidentiality, the Commissioner would be able to review those exclusions, to make sure they were well-founded.
Neither of these planks in the nearly eight-year-old platform has been enacted.
Once in power, political parties tend to lose their enthusiasm for the open government for which they hungered and thirsted in opposition.
Genuine cabinet confidences should indeed be protected. Cabinet ministers need to be able to deliberate freely with each other. If their internal discussions and debates were made public, the cabinet would cease to be a government and would be become a nest of factions – a mini-Commons.
But it is all too easy for ministers to vacuum up a mass of information and treat it as a part of their confidential thoughts.
In her annual report in June, Ms. Legault said that the access-to-information system is suffering from “significant deterioration.” Most disturbingly, she found that “the disappearance or amalgamation of institutions” has led to uncertainty about “how or where their records” have been “dispersed or preserved.”
Charlie Angus, Mathieu Ravignat and other NDP members of the committee on access to information, privacy and ethics, are showing a renewed interest in accountability and transparency – causes once dear to the Conservatives.
The Senate expenses scandal may be already bearing fruit. It is encouraging that, last Tuesday in the Commons, Tony Clement, the President of the Treasury Board, responded in Question Period to Mr. Ravignat and Mr. Angus, saying that the government would be happy to receive suggestions from opposition MPs, as well as from Ms. Legault and other commissioners.