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NDP MP Pat Martin. (SEAN KILPATRICK/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
NDP MP Pat Martin. (SEAN KILPATRICK/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Access-to-information laws need ‘urgent' reform, NDP warns Add to ...

New Democrats are proposing key reforms to the federal Access to Information Act, saying the system is in “crisis.”

MP Pat Martin, who is also chair of the House of Commons committee on access to information, accused successive Liberal and Conservative ministers of breaking their promises to fix the legislation.

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Martin told a news conference the NDP wants to give Canada’s information watchdog the power to order departments and agencies to comply with the law and release documents.

Currently, the information commissioner of Canada has only limited powers and must sometimes go to court to challenge recalcitrant departments who refuse to turn over documents.

The party also says the commissioner, currently Suzanne Legault, should have the power to examine cabinet documents.

Under the law, the government can withhold documents deemed to be cabinet confidences, and the commissioner has no power to review the decision by inspecting the material.

The NDP also wants the law to cover the administrative records of the House of Commons and the Senate, though constituency records and other documents within MPs’ offices would still be off limits.

“Freedom of information is a cornerstone of accountable government – but our system is in crisis,” Martin said in a statement.

“Conservatives must honour their promises and work with us to fix Canada’s broken access to information laws.”

Two of the reforms proposed Monday by the NDP were campaign planks in the Conservative platform for the 2006 election, which brought the party to power.

The “Stand up for Canada” platform booklet from the campaign said a Conservative government would “give the information commissioner the power to order the release of information.”

The platform document also said the party would “subject the exclusion of cabinet confidences to review by the information commissioner.”

The Conservatives did deliver on one related promise, that is, making Crown corporations subject to the act, including the CBC and Canada Post.

Legault, the current information commissioner, has supported reforms that would give her limited order-making powers for administrative matters, such as overdue responses.

A report on her wide-ranging review of the act is expected later this fall.

The Access to Information Act, which came into force in 1983 before the digital age, has never had a top-to-bottom overhaul.

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