Four years after the Harper government came to office pledging sweeping improvements to Canada's access laws, a new report warns that the right of Canadians to obtain federal documents is at risk of being "totally obliterated."
The damning conclusion comes from interim access-to-information commissioner Suzanne Legault, who is waiting for the government to announce whether she - or someone else - will be appointed to a seven-year term.
Ms. Legault urged Prime Minister Stephen Harper to follow the lead of U.S. President Barack Obama in embracing "open government" as the inevitable way of the future.
"Do we have, right now, a government that is instilling a culture of transparency?" she asked. "I haven't seen evidence of that yet."
The timing of the report proved fortuitous for the opposition, who just one hour after its release Tuesday had a rare opportunity to grill the Prime Minister's chief of staff, Guy Giorno, about access-to-information issues and reports of political interference. Photographers and camera operators briefly outnumbered MPs at the House of Commons committee on access to information, privacy and ethics, gathering pictures of a powerful man who is often talked about in Ottawa but rarely seen.
Mr. Giorno, a lawyer and former chief of staff to Ontario premier Mike Harris, acknowledged there is always room for improvement in handling access requests, but insisted he and the Prime Minister believe responses should be timely.
"I believe very strongly in access to information and I do not believe that access to information is a political football to be shunned by the government and embraced only in opposition," he said. "It's a principle that applies at all times."
He also said Conservative political staffers working for cabinet ministers are under orders not to delay or interfere with the release of access-to-information requests.
For $5, anyone can ask a government department to provide copies of internal documents, but the laws allow virtually unlimited extensions and many opportunities for officials to black out material.
Mr. Giorno told MPs he sent a note to political staff in ministers' offices just days after a Feb. 7 news report revealed ministerial staffer Sébastien Togneri intervened in the process, ordering public servants to "un-release" Public Works real-estate documents that were about to go out the door.
Liberal MPs on the committee accused Mr. Giorno of presenting a "rosy" picture of the government's approach to openness that is at odds with the commissioner's "scathing indictment."
The commissioner's report was not all negative. The work of access teams at the departments of Justice, Citizenship and Immigration, Public Works, Industry Canada and the Canadian Border Services Agency was held up as a model for others.
But core departments including the Privy Council Office and Foreign Affairs were singled out for slow response times and for creating a bottleneck that causes delays in other departments.
Five departments received F rankings and seven earned Ds, while the performance of Foreign Affairs was deemed so poor that its report card ranking simply states "red alert."