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Tories keep 'as many things secret as the CBC,' watchdog says

CBC headquarters, Toronto.

Louie Palu/Louie Palu/The Globe and Mail

Conservative MPs are expressing concern about the CBC and its reluctance to release its corporate secrets under access-to-information laws – but the government itself has something to answer for on this issue, a leading democracy advocate says.

Duff Conacher, the co-ordinator of Democracy Watch, points out that the Conservatives have failed to keep their campaign promise of 2006 to strengthen the Access to Information Act.

As part of their accountability package, Mr. Conacher points out the Tories would require all government and government-funded institutions to create records detailing all their actions and decisions, and to give the Information Commissioner the power to order the disclosure of any record, especially if it is in the public interest.

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"The Conservatives broke their promises because they wanted to keep just as many things secret as the CBC does," Mr. Conacher says in a letter to media on Friday.

In a report on the news website iPolitics, Elizabeth Thompson says Edmonton MP Brent Rathgeber wants to use Parliament "to obtain information on everything from how much the broadcaster spends on booze to the perks and paycheques of such CBC stars as Peter Mansbridge, George Stroumboulopoulos and comedian Rick Mercer."

Ms. Thompson says that, in four questions included on Friday's order paper, Mr. Rathgeber also wants to know how much the CBC spent for the rights to broadcast Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy, an itemized list of expenses for the CBC's bureaus in Paris, London, Washington and Rome, as well as a list of everyone at the CBC who earns more than $100,000, their names and salaries.

The CBC, of course, has been defending itself at the Commons ethics committee against an attack from competing broadcaster Quebecor, which says its access requests have been un fairly denied. The CBC fires back that Quebecor is after information that could give the private broadcaster a competitive edge – not material that is journalistically relevant.

The MPs on the committee are clearly divided along party lines with the Conservatives backing Quebecor in the fight and the opposition lining up behind the public broadcaster. On Thursday, after a court ruled the CBC was obliged to turn over internal files to the Information Commissioner, the Tories shifted their focus to overhauling the disclosure law in question.

But Mr. Conacher says the Access to Information Act should not be amended just to address concerns about exemptions that affect the CBC, as Conservative MP Dean del Mastro has suggested.

Instead, he said, it should also be changed to give Information Commissioner Suzanne Legault "the power she wants to limit extensions and to issue orders that would resolve disputes over search fees and delays. And the Commissioner should also be given the power to fine violators, and to require systemic changes by government institutions to improve access (as in the UK)."

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The ethics committee actually took a stab at reforming the law some years back and, after long weeks of hearings, came up with "12 quick fixes" to the access-to-information regime. But, when the report was tabled, Justice Minister Rob Nicholson dismissed them saying the committee had not studied the government's own proposals.

To which the committee replied: What government proposals?

The Conservatives had apparently tabled proposed reforms in 2006 but did not tell opposition MPs or the clerk of the committee.

Meanwhile, reporters and others with an interest in obtaining information about government initiatives continue to be stymied by long delays, high search fees, blacked-out documents and outright refusals – including, apparently, Quebecor in its quest for information about the CBC.

Health Minister joins provincial counterparts

It's Friday, so cabinet ministers have been dispatched across the country.

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Prime Minister Stephen will be in Vancouver giving a speech at the Telus World of Science.

Finance Minister Jim Flaherty will deliver his own address at the Canadian Club luncheon in Toronto – watch for Europe to come in for a tongue-lashing.

And Leona Aglukkaq, the Health Minister, will attend a meeting of her provincial counterparts in Halifax. The minister has taken to Twitter to say she is "looking forward to come great discussions."

The talks will centre on what her government is going to do when the existing health accord expires in two years' time.

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