A united group of opposition MPs from three parties is calling for an overhaul of the federal access to information system – a move being resisted by the governing Liberals.
The House committee on access to information, privacy and ethics, which has been studying the system since October of last year, published a 99-page report on Tuesday outlining proposed changes to the regime’s law and policy. Liberal MPs on the committee responded with a dissenting opinion.
The report recommends bringing ministers’ offices under federal access law, fulfilling a promise made and later abandoned by the federal Liberals in 2015. Other proposals would limit time extensions on access requests to 60 days, give the Information Commissioner of Canada the power to impose fines and review cabinet confidences, and establish the automatic release of historical documents after 25 years.
The report also calls on the government to tie senior public servants’ bonuses to their access performance and change the funding mechanism for the Information Commissioner’s office. It says that all released access requests should be published in full in a searchable database.
Earlier this month, The Globe and Mail launched its Secret Canada project, which included a database similar to the one proposed by the committee – except The Globe’s includes summaries of information requests made to multiple levels of government, as well as public-sector agencies, from across the country. An accompanying Globe investigation found that freedom of information laws, including the federal Access to Information and Privacy Act, are routinely being broken without consequence, denying requesters their right to public records.
In Ottawa, the parliamentarians studying the law heard from 42 witnesses across 11 public hearings. In an interview on Tuesday, John Brassard, Conservative MP and chair of the committee, said the report was a “strong rebuke” of the government’s own access review, which was published in December and widely criticized by experts.
“We’ve effectively created a template on how to fix what is a broken system in this country,” Mr. Brassard said. “It’s up to the government now to fix this system.”
A two-page written dissent signed by committee Liberal MPs Iqra Khalid, Parm Bains, Greg Fergus, Lisa Hepfner and Ya’ara Saks said that the government’s priority was to “improve service under the existing law,” not to re-examine the Access to Information Act, which was amended by the Liberals under Bill C-58 in 2019.
The dissent singled out and dismissed several of the report’s proposals. It said one recommendation – which would make documents related to cabinet deliberations accessible under the law – amounted to “political posturing” by the Conservative Party, and that Conservatives would never implement this change if they were running the government.
During the 2015 federal election campaign, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau vowed to make sweeping changes to access to information. Those changes would have included bringing ministers’ offices – including his own – under access law and making the government “open by default.”
Those and other access commitments in the Liberal Party’s 2015 platform were never adopted, though the government eventually made some changes to federal access law as part of Bill C-58, including abolishing all charges for requests beyond the initial $5 filing fee.
University of Winnipeg professor Kevin Walby, who studies access to information, said that the committee’s report, and the Liberals’ response – which he called “flippant and short” – suggests the issue is “becoming a political football again.”
“What we really need in Canada, at multiple levels of government, is for this to really be taken seriously as a policy issue and as a legal issue,” he said. “Politicians only seem capable of tossing it around like a hot potato.”
Instead, the “genuine thing to do,” Prof. Walby said, would be for the Liberals to implement some of these changes, irrespective of political leanings or machinations.
“This is really kind of damaging to their credibility, because all these points being raised – they do sound really reasonable,” he said. “It does tarnish the reputation of the governing party that they never follow through on some of these promises.
“Anyone could look at this and say, ‘Yeah, it seems like this is a broken area of law and policy,’” he said. “I think they have to act in some way.”
The Globe requested an interview with Ms. Khalid, Liberal vice-chair of the committee, but she declined through a spokesperson. In response to a written question, Ms. Khalid told a reporter to reach out to Treasury Board president Mona Fortier, whose department is in charge of administering the act.
Now that the House committee’s report has been tabled in Parliament, the government is required to issue a formal response.
Changes made to the Access to Information Act in 2019 mean that a full legislative review is slated to occur in 2024. Mr. Brassard said that if the government hasn’t implemented any of the committee’s recommendations by then, that review is likely to become the next battleground for changes to access law and policy.
“Right now, we have done everything we can to help the government fix the system. And if they don’t want to, or they’ve got that lack of will to fix the system, then they’ll be held to account on that,” Mr. Brassard said. “It’s up to them to do it.”