Canada's access to information laws are on the verge of becoming completely meaningless due to chronic delays and foot dragging, a new report warns.
Released today by interim Access to Information Commissionier Suzanne Legault, the report says growing delays are eroding Canadians' right to obtain documents from their government.
"This right is at risk of being totally obliterated because delays threaten to render the entire access regime irrelevant in our current information economy," Ms. Legault writes.
"The status quo whereby citizens want information that the government wants to control no longer works. The technical arcana of bureaucracy are neither a reasonable explanation nor an excuse for increasingly lengthy delays."
The report comes as the Conservative government is immersed in battles over documents on several fronts. Opposition MPs, through an order of the House of Commons, are demanding all documents related to detainees in Afghanistan.
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Stephen Harper's Chief of Staff, Guy Giorno, appeared today before a Commons committee to respond to reports of ministerial aides interfering to delay or block the release of information.
Appearing later before the Commons ethics Committee, Mr. Giorno said the government believes access requests should receive "timely" responses. He noted that the Conservatives made cabinet ministers personally responsible for their department's performance under access laws.
However he declined to answer a follow-up question from NDP MP Bill Siksay, who asked whether any ministers will be disciplined for their department's poor rankings in today's commissioner's report.
Mr. Giorno said he had not read the commissioner's report, but that he has been personally involved in recent training sessions with Conservative ministerial staffers to ensure they do not interfere with departmental plans to release information under the act.
"No political staff member has authority to make access to information decisions," he said. "It's access to information that makes our democracy function."
Mr. Giorno maintained the government is doing a good job, even as Liberal MPs accused him of painting a "rosy picture" that is at odds with the Commissioner's "scathing indictment" released this morning.
"We have a strong, more robust access to information regime today," Mr. Giorno said.
Damning conclusions from the Access to Information Commissioner are nothing new in Ottawa. Yet Mr. Harper came to office in 2006 after making open, transparent government and revived Access to Information policies a central campaign promise.
Today's report singles out the Privy Council Office - the public service arm of the Prime Minister's Office - for particular scorn.
The PCO receives a "D" ranking for posting some of the longest completion times in government. The council is also causing delays for access response times in other departments, which must seek PCO's advice on whether certain matters should be exempt as cabinet confidences.
This bottleneck is partly due to the fact that only four staff are assigned at PCO to manage the entire workload of deciding what is or is not a cabinet confidence.
In her comments to reporters, Ms. Legault said the situation requires leadership from key central departments like the PCO, as well as top politicians.
"I think that the Prime Minister does have a strong role to play," she said. Countries like the United States, the U.K. and Australia are embracing "open government," she said, yet Canada is not following suit.
"Do we have, right now, a government that is instilling a culture of transparency? I haven't seen evidence of that yet."