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Lawrence Martin
Lawrence Martin

Lawrence Martin

Is this the answer to access requests? Stop keeping records? Add to ...

Under the nettlesome Access to Information program, the government's most recent embarrassment came when a cabinet minister's staffer was caught ordering a bureaucrat to "unrelease" a document. The report was already headed to The Canadian Press when Christian Paradis's operatives tried to lasso it back.

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Given the government's penchant for secrecy and censorship, there are likely more unreleasers in its ranks. Despite Accountability Act promises to broaden access laws, the Conservatives have gone the other way. Last fall, a parliamentary committee recommended sweeping changes to the Information Act. Justice Minister Rob Nicholson nixed the recommendations. Like many governments before, this one is no fan of democratic tendencies.

But the Conservatives may have found the ultimate solution to the problem. There's an easy way to prevent anyone from getting access to your records, a veteran bureaucrat explained this week - don't keep records. Team Harper is catching on, he said. There's far less documentation, far less record-keeping. It's the formula for deniability. Why not make it the way of the future?

The bureaucrat was at the Department of National Defence, where the Afghan detainee affair has brought controversy, some of it prompted by journalistic prying through access laws. "I get a call from the Privy Council Office," he said. "They're setting up a conference call. The first thing that's said is 'No note-taking, no recordings, nothing. We don't want to see anything in writing on this.' … That's the way they develop policies now and, for my money, it's scary."

There's conflicting information on how widespread the practice has become. But it befits a government that, the bureaucrat reminded, has already eliminated its giant databank of access to information requests, known as CAIRS.

The recent controversies have put pressure on Stephen Harper's team to be more open and show some democratic spirit. But it's unlikely the access system will be improved. There are too many ways to thwart it.

The access laws were introduced under Pierre Trudeau's government in 1983 and the dodging began almost immediately. A former chief of staff to several ministers in Brian Mulroney's government explained this week that what Mr. Paradis's office did on the Canadian Press request was chicken feed compared to some of the things that used to happen.

When a document was to be released, he explained, it went to the departmental minister in question. Political staff there scoured for anything dangerous. If there was, it would be stuffed in a drawer. When the access bureaucrats came back asking about it, they would be told it presented problems. The access people would then suggest a petition be forwarded to block the release on national security grounds, or similar. Long delays would ensue while ways to "unrelease" the documents were explored.

The former chief of staff recalled that ministerial advisers would sometimes develop good relationships with the access people. "It would be like, 'Come on, you've got to give us break here. If this stuff is released, we're dead. And the friendly bureaucrat would relent and say he'd go back to the legal department and see what could be done.'"

There were also occasions when access bureaucrats would want to block the documents themselves because they risked publicity that might cause problems in their own backyards.

An official who worked in the PMO under former chief of staff Ian Brodie insisted this week that the office did not interfere in the access process. It was too risky, he said. He allowed that it might be different under Guy Giorno.

After the Paradis episode, Harper spokesman Dmitri Soudas issued a warning that due diligence on access requests "should be done by public servants and not political staff." If it was an isolated incident, it's unlikely the alert would have been necessary. To look at how things were handled on the Afghan detainee file - the attempts to block documents, the blacking out of so much of what was released - is to see all kinds of evidence of mischief.

Maybe they've learned a lesson. If records weren't kept in the first place, there would be no such problems.

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