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The centre block of the Parliament buildings is reflected in a puddle as a woman walks past, in Ottawa on February 1, 2016. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)
The centre block of the Parliament buildings is reflected in a puddle as a woman walks past, in Ottawa on February 1, 2016. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Globe editorial

If Ottawa wants to be more open, maybe it should just be more open Add to ...

The federal government wants to be more open. Just don’t ask about the advice it is getting on how to be more open. Apparently, that’s a secret. Which would be laughable if the issue at hand wasn’t so important.

Yes, there are many valid reasons to keep certain matters of state confidential.

The decisional stakes are often high, all pieces of advice are not created equally and members of the public service should be able to operate under the assurance they can speak freely.

Likewise, a lot of what is discussed around the cabinet table – it could be a question of counter-terrorism policy, or debating a bail-out for a major corporation – can and should remain secret for security or commercial reasons.

But the Trudeau government was elected on a promise to usher in a new era of transparency. It’s hard to reconcile that pledge with a heavily-redacted briefing document it recently provided to the Canadian Press under access-to-information provisions.

Why not allow Canadians to see the recommendations on how best to proceed?

The cynic’s view is the government would prefer not to have its thought process scrutinized by outside experts (or the likes of Information Commissioner Suzanne Legault), many of whom have been advocating for deep reform.

The government would do well to adopt a simple guiding principle in updating the 30-year-old Access to Information Act: openness by default. That’s what it promised in last fall’s election. “Our objective is nothing less than making transparency a fundamental principle,” said the platform. “We must ensure that government on the whole is open by default.” That means making everything public unless there is a compelling state interest in not doing so.

Ottawa could start by removing the cabinet-confidence tag on all manner of routine government business – like, say, briefing documents on how to make the federal state less secretive.

The destination in this case matters more than the journey. But the fact the federal government refuses to let the public see the menu of options put before it regarding that journey to greater openness doesn’t exactly inspire confidence.

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