Justin Trudeau’s first private member’s bill, the Transparency Act, should be supported by all federal parties. He is right that government documents are public property, and the burden of proving they ought not to be disclosed should be on the government. The cost of producing documents in response to access requests should also not be borne by citizens. Public information should be, as much as possible, easily and automatically available to the public.
The Liberal Leader’s bill may or may not get through Parliament – private member’s bills tend to sink to the sea floor, as happened last month to a similar bill from MP Pat Martin of the NDP. But it presents a challenge to the Conservatives, who in opposition ran on a promise to greatly strengthen Canada’s access-to-information laws. Every party is now in favour of a more accessible access-to-information system – and yet, somehow, the law still hasn’t been changed.
Mr. Trudeau’s bill would also make all meetings of the House of Commons Board of Internal Economy open to the public – or at least “as much as possible” or “open by default.” This is a highly topical point about the Commons’ own spending on itself; most recently the Conservatives and Liberals appear to have ganged up on the NDP for sending out partisan mailings, as all three major parties have done.
But whatever the motive for the timing of Mr. Trudeau’s bill, it is the right thing to do. His “open by default” concept essentially means that the information commissioner would be able to order government officials to produce documents, and it would be up to the officials to apply to the Federal Court for a decision saying that the matter in question comes under one of the exceptions to the Access to Information Act.
At present, it is the other way around. Federal Information Commissioner Suzanne Legault has to go to the Federal Court for an order declaring that the exception doesn’t apply.
In her most recent report, Ms. Legault offers the conspicuous example of the Lac-Mégantic railway disaster. Transport Canada was overwhelmed by access-to-information requests. But she found that the time extensions granted to the agency were not justified.
A bill such as Mr. Trudeau’s is clearly needed, when there is foot-dragging even in such a major public matter.