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The Globe and Mail

Canadians' access to information at a crisis point

Federal Information Commissioner Suzanne Legault released her report Out of Time on Tuesday in Ottawa.

FRED CHARTRAND/THE CANADIAN PRESS

A raft of confrontations is pitting the federal government, the military and Ontario's provincial police against opposition parties, the media, interest groups and inquiries over when politicians and bureaucrats can withhold information from the public.

Both sides realize that control over information is the only control that matters. Those with power seek to preserve that power by managing the flow of information; others wrestle to bring it into the public square.

So the Information Commissioner despairs that the right to information from government is on the brink of being "totally obliterated" through government delay and obstruction.

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Diplomat Richard Colvin testifies at the Military Police Complaints Commission about the Conservative government's willful blindness over the alleged torture of Afghan detainees once they left Canadian custody.

And Prime Minister Stephen Harper dismisses Helena Guergis from cabinet, expels her from caucus and calls in the police, while refusing to say why.

No wonder the Supreme Court is struggling to decide whether a right to information from government actually exists.

At root are conflicting notions of responsibility. Politicians and public servants typically believe that how a policy is communicated is vital to that policy itself, and that nothing should be compromised through unplanned disclosures.

Those outside government insist that in an open democracy everything must be revealed unless there is a compelling reason not to. Each side talks past the other.

Yet things get out. People talk, documents leak, inquiries grind inexorably toward the truth.

Around the world, democratic governments are relinquishing at least some of their control over information. Others are having it wrested from them.

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About the Author
Writer-at-large

John Ibbitson started at The Globe in 1999 and has been Queen's Park columnist and Ottawa political affairs correspondent.Most recently, he was a correspondent and columnist in Washington, where he wrote Open and Shut: Why America has Barack Obama and Canada has Stephen Harper. He returned to Ottawa as bureau chief in 2009. More

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