Federal agencies expect to refuse to process an estimated 275 Access to Information requests from Canadians annually — less than one per cent of the total received — under proposed new powers to reject overly broad or vexatious applications, internal number-crunching suggests.
A federal spokesman acknowledges the Treasury Board Secretariat analysis — based on the experiences of provinces with such provisions — reveals that “only a very small percentage of requests” are turned down.
Transparency advocates wonder why the Liberal government is even bothering to usher in the new refusal powers in a federal bill currently before the Senate.
“The problem with the Access to Information system isn’t the requesters. It’s the responders — in other words, government,” said Sean Holman, an associate professor of journalism at Mount Royal University in Calgary.
The Access to Information Act, which took effect in 1983, allows applicants who pay $5 to ask for federal documents, but it has been widely denounced as slow and antiquated.
The federal bill — one of the few attempts to revise the law — would require applicants to state the type of record being sought, the subject matter and the time-frame in which the documents were created.
The legislation would give agencies the power, with permission from the information commissioner, to decline to act on requests considered overly broad, vexatious, made in bad faith or otherwise an abuse of the process.
The Canadian Press used the access law to obtain the Treasury Board’s statistical projections, which draw on figures in the various provinces that have “decline to act” provisions in their laws.
Officials multiplied a mean provincial refusal figure of 0.30 per cent by the total number of federal requests in 2016-17, concluding 275 would be declined.
“The work confirmed that, in the provinces that have an authority to do so, only a very small percentage of requests are declined as being frivolous or vexatious,” said Treasury Board spokesman Martin Potvin.
The “extremely low rate” of frivolous and vexatious access requests at the provincial level shows the refusal power should be stripped from the federal bill, said Duff Conacher, co-founder of the group Democracy Watch and an adjunct professor of law and politics at the University of Ottawa.
If the authority “is not taken away then the information commissioner must be given the power to fine officials who try to abuse this power,” he added.
Requesters have to go through a maze-like process to get sometimes even the most basic information from government, said Holman, who is writing a history of the Access to Information Act.
“Yet I don’t see government proposing any measures to actually deal with that problem. Where’s the punishment for officials who are overly broad in their use of the Act’s loopholes, censoring information that shouldn’t be censored?” he asked.
“Where’s the punishment for officials who are vexatious when Canadians exercise their supposed right to information?”
Information commissioner Caroline Maynard told a House of Commons committee this week her office plans to assemble a special team that could quickly tell agencies whether they have permission to refuse to act on requests or not.
Maynard will also look at practices in the provinces with such provisions to help develop her own tests and tools for making the decisions.