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Harper government cutbacks hurting access to info

Information Commissioner Suzanne Legault says her office doesn’t have the budget it needs to meet Canadians’ demands.

Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

It isn't particularly surprising when a political party that campaigned for better access to government information while in opposition suddenly loses its appetite for the same in government. Welcome to Ottawa. But when the party goes from promising more access to actively reducing it, that's another matter. Such is the case with the Harper government.

The Conservatives promised in 2006 to give the federal information commissioner the power to order the release of contested information. They also said the commissioner would be able to review information withheld on the grounds of cabinet confidentiality. Eight years later, neither promised reform has been enacted.

During the same period, the Harper government has ignored the chorus of voices – which, prior to 2006, included its own – calling on Parliament to update the country's antediluvian Access to Information Act. The act was passed in 1985; in Internet years, it is approximately 2,000 years old.

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And now the Information Commissioner, Suzanne Legault, is dealing with budget cuts that mean her office's funding has not kept pace with a growing complaint load. Her $11.2-million budget has decreased by 9 per cent since 2009, according to her most recent annual report, while the number of complaints being filed by Canadians has increased steadily. In 2013-14 alone, they rose 31 per cent.

Response times have dropped disastrously as a consequence. Ms. Legault, in going public this week about the impact of the cutbacks, said the wait time between the filing of a complaint and the assigning of an investigator has reached six months. Her next move will be to make a formal request to the Treasury Board for more money. Treasury Board President Tony Clement has had no comment, so far.

Mr. Clement should give the Information Commissioner the resources she needs. Since taking power, the Harper government has focused on putting more information online and on launching its Open Government web portal. But those efforts, however worthwhile, will mean little if the government simultaneously makes it harder for Canadians to get information that has been classified or held back for political reasons – arguably the most important information of all in a free society. The Conservatives knew this in 2006; why don't they know it now?

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