Here’s a political trivia question: Which prime minister, Stephen Harper or Justin Trudeau, ran on the open-government promise to strengthen the Access to Information Act, but then delayed and made lame excuses and failed to deliver?
It’s a trick question, unfortunately. The answer is both.
The difference between the two, however, is that Mr. Trudeau is still in power, and his Liberal government still insists, despite repeated delays and excuses, that they are going to do something about it, eventually. The latest dodge came last month when Treasury Board President Scott Brison put off a promised first phase of reforms, calling it “complicated,” to an unspecified time in the future.
So it’s time to call out the Liberals on their soft, slippery, sliding commitment to access-to-information reform. This is a pattern this country has seen before.
The pattern has left Canada with a federal freedom-of-information regime that is weak, that makes it easier for government to hide bad policies, mistakes, abuses, and corruption.
Want to know how much the government paid for key chains or flights? It will probably take months to get blacked-out sheets. The access to information has become a list of exemptions interpreted, in practice, by government departments, and the public has weak options for recourse.
Political parties have promised to fix it – when in opposition.
Back in 2005, when the Liberal government of the day was suffering the stink of the sponsorship scandal, Mr. Harper promised a Conservative government would pass reforms, including a reworking of the Access to Information Act. That would include reducing exemptions and expanding the coverage of the act to explicitly include minister’s offices.
Once in power, they dropped it. They fiddled a little – extending the act to some Crown corporations, but adding loopholes. They fought court cases against people seeking records from ministers’ offices – the thing they promised to allow. In 2009, when then-Treasury Board president Vic Toews was asked if he’d ever submit a reform, he gave an Orwellian response: “I don’t have anything on my desk so I can’t really submit anything right now,” he said. That was that.
Mr. Harper’s government became known for secrecy. That inspired Mr. Trudeau’s Liberals to campaign on “open and transparent” government, notably reform of Access to Information.
They, too, promised to extend the act to ministers’ offices. Now they’re waffling. They also promised to give the Information Commissioner the power to order the government to release records. Now that they’re in power, they don’t seem to want to relinquish control.
The 1983 Access to Information Act was supposed to be a simple way to get a government record. Send a written request, with a $5 fee, and get an answer in 30 days. What you get is a letter saying it will take another 90 or 120 days, or more.
When The Globe’s Robyn Doolittle researched the Unfounded series that found police across the country dismiss one in five sexual assault complaints as baseless, and with widely varying practices, she had to wait almost a year for RCMP statistics.
Worse, records are often withheld for no good reason. During the sponsorship scandal, the Public Works department refused to reveal the unit cost paid for “promotional items” like key chains, and the invoices from their suppliers. When those documents were obtained elsewhere, they showed large markups paid to suppliers and sub-contractors – who donated money to the Liberal Party. Now, Treasury Board guidelines say departments are required to disclose prices in contracts, but, for example, departments are now refusing to release the prices of flights to bring in Syrian refugees.
The recourse, when a requester is refused, is a complaint to the Information Commissioner. If the Commissioner is refused, she can decide to use limited resources to take the government to court. That takes years.
This is not simply a problem for journalists – companies, charities, politicians and others all use access requests. But what really matters with freedom-of-information laws is who answers – when information can eventually be released, governments have less latitude to mislead.
Once again, a government is delaying. They worry covering ministers’ offices will lead aides to fear providing advice – which is exempt from disclosure anyway. They worry about personal privacy and national security, both covered by wide exemptions. But really, they don’t want to relinquish control. So let’s keep watch as the Liberals follow the old pattern of governments seeking to avoid scrutiny.Report Typo/Error