Government’s access to info bill a step backwards, not forward: watchdog

By Jim Bronskill, The Canadian Press

OTTAWA – A government bill that is supposed to increase transparency for Canadians would actually do the opposite, the federal information watchdog said Thursday.

In a report presented to Parliament, information commissioner Suzanne Legault said the bill to amend the Access to Information Act would take people’s right to know backwards rather than forward.

Legault, an ombudsman for users of the access act, has long advocated strengthening the 34-year-old law that allows people who pay a $5 application fee to ask for federal files ranging from expense reports to briefing papers.

The Trudeau government says its proposed access legislation, introduced in June, will raise the bar on openness and transparency following years of inaction by the previous Conservative government.

But in her first substantive comments on the legislation, Legault said the measures fail to deliver on Liberal election promises. “If passed, it would result in a regression of existing rights.”

The bill severely limits the right of access by creating new hurdles for requesters and giving agencies new authorities to refuse to answer requests, Legault says.

“It will make things significantly worse, and this is what’s so disheartening,” she said in an interview. “There was such an opportunity.”

Legault makes 28 recommendations to improve the legislation.

A coalition of leading civil society organizations, including Canadian Journalists for Free Expression and the Halifax-based Centre for Law and Democracy, called Thursday for the government to withdraw the “inadequate” bill and start over.

Conservative and New Democrat MPs have also criticized the legislation for falling short of Liberal promises.

Jean-Luc Ferland, a spokesman for Treasury Board President Scott Brison, defended the bill Thursday as the first real advancement for the law since it took effect in 1983. But he added: “In our discussions with the commissioner, we have come to understand that clearer language may help allay her concerns.”

During recent House of Commons debate on the bill, Brison also signalled some flexibility.

“Now more than ever, open government is good government,” he said. “We want to work with parliamentarians, independent officers of Parliament and stakeholders to ensure that this first major Access to Information Act reform in three decades reflects that intention.”

Under the access act, departments and agencies must answer requests within 30 days or provide a good reason why more time is necessary. Many applicants complain about lengthy delays in processing requests as well as blacked-out passages — or entire pages — in records that are eventually released.

In addition, dozens of agencies with federal ties fall outside the act.

The government has not fulfilled its promise to extend the law to the offices of the prime minister, cabinet members, senators, MPs and administrative institutions that support Parliament and the courts, Legault said.

Instead, these offices and institutions would be required to regularly release certain types of records, such as hospitality and travel expenses and contract information.

Such a scheme allows government to decide what information Canadians can obtain, rather than letting requesters decide for themselves, Legault said. It also denies the commissioner any oversight of the process.

In addition, the bill backpedals on a promise to give the information commissioner genuine power to make orders about the release of records, the report said. “It does not take advantage of any of the benefits of a true order-making model.”

Although the commissioner would have new authority to issue orders about the release of records and additional time taken to answer requests, federal agencies could challenge those orders in wide-ranging Federal Court hearings, which often go on for years.

Legault criticized provisions that would allow an agency to refuse to process a request unless the applicant stated the type of record being sought, the subject matter and the time-frame in which the documents were created — criteria she called unreasonable.

For instance, a requester might not know the date a tax audit or immigration file they seek was created — but that missing information could disqualify the request.

“This is a bill that was drafted by the government for the government,” Legault said in the interview. “This is all about reducing the workload of the government in answering — or not answering — requests.”

The bill also reintroduces the possibility of various processing fees that were scrapped last year.

Determining fee amounts and collecting payments adds complexity to the system and slows things down for requesters, Legault’s report said.

“Fees cause undue delays, lead to abuse, increase costs in the administration of the act, and are inconsistent with an open by default government. Fees should be definitively eliminated.”

— Follow @JimBronskill on Twitter

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