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Let there be light, and access to information, in Ottawa

Suzanne Legault, Information Commissioner of Canada, holds a press conference in the National Press Theatre in Ottawa on Tuesday, March 31, 2015, after tabling her special report "Striking the Right Balance for Transparency - Recommendations to modernize the Access to Information Act. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS

When in doubt, disclose – that is one of the admirable messages delivered last week by Suzanne Legault, the Information Commissioner of Canada, in her report on how to modernize the federal government's access-to-information system.

In fact, the principle in question is even broader. The presumption should be that any document made for a public, governmental purpose should be made public in the first place; that is, it should be posted on the Internet when it is created, and made available to a citizen seeking the information – unless there is some valid, solid reason not to do so. In other words, most public documents should be open "by default." The burden of proof should be on the concealer.

The privacy of citizens will often be such a reason; secrecy in governmental activity is less often a solid ground.

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The current ATI law is 30 years old, and has been amended in only minor ways since then. Governments and bureaucracies have little incentive to provide most information. This history demonstrates that both Liberals and Conservatives are to blame; we may well doubt that the NDP will be any better if they ever come to power in Ottawa.

All this should be, and could be, much easier in an age of electronic documents, when transmitting information is convenient and easy, and when metal filing cabinets are mostly obsolete. But that has not happened.

One recommendation in Ms. Legault would simplify life for everybody. The charging of fees for requests should end – New Brunswick has already done this in 2011.

The most fraught access-to-information question is cabinet confidences – that is, what is genuinely part of the deliberations of the cabinet, and what is being used as "a cloak" to conceal information. Ms. Legault is right that "purely factual and background information" should not treated as cabinet confidences, but "analyses of problems and policy options" may be another matter.

The fact, however, that cabinet confidence was invoked 3,136 times in 2013-2014 gives us pause. Ms. Legault's recommendation that a few members of her office should be able to assess whether cabinet confidence is being used for its proper purpose is a good one – as is characteristic of this excellent report as a whole.

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