Lim­it­ing dis­clo­sure

The Compass - - Editorial -

Leg­is­la­tion is like barbed wire: for ev­ery­thing it fences in, it also fences things out - and of­ten, how a piece of leg­is­la­tion looks de­pends on what side of the fence you’re on.

Take pro­posed changes to fed­eral ac­cess to in­for­ma­tion law.

Last month, the fed­eral Lib­er­als said they were de­liv­er­ing on an elec­tion prom­ise to strengthen that law; the Prime Min­is­ter’s Of­fice and cab­i­net min­is­ters’ of­fices would be in­cluded un­der the law, and the gov­ern­ment promised the coun­try’s in­for­ma­tion com­mis­sioner would be able to com­pel the re­lease of doc­u­ments.

It sounded great on the op­po­si­tion side of the fence.

In gov­ern­ment, though, the Lib­er­als are not plan­ning to in­clude cab­i­net min­is­ters or the Prime Min­is­ter’s Of­fice in the law; in­stead, un­der a pro­gram of “proac­tive dis­clo­sure,” they plan to re­lease some cho­sen de­tails of the op­er­a­tion of cab­i­net of­fices.

It’s not the same thing at all.

As for the com­mis­sioner or­der­ing the re­lease of ma­te­ri­als, well, gov­ern­ment de­part­ments will be al­lowed to go to court to stop the re­lease of in­for­ma­tion.

On top of that, the Lib­er­als have added a mech­a­nism that will al­low de­part­ments to refuse to ful­fil re­quests of­fi­cials feel are just too dif­fi­cult.

Gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials, no doubt, see the plan to in­tro­duce the abil­ity to refuse to ad­dress a re­quest that’s too com­plex or oner­ous on de­part­men­tal re­sources as a rea­son­able way to ad­dress a prob­lem. On the other side of the fence, though, such an ex­emp­tion looks more like just an­other handy loop­hole to use when you want to with­hold po­ten­tially em­bar­rass­ing in­for­ma­tion from the public.

The prob­lem is re­ally a con­flict of in­ter­est; the gov­ern­ment draw­ing up the leg­is­la­tion has too much to lose from com­pletely open­ing the doors on its gov­er­nance, and while open­ness and ac­count­abil­ity are reg­u­larly an op­po­si­tion mantra, they are a gov­ern­ment bug­bear.

There is, of course, an easy solution, and one that pro­vin­cial gov­ern­ments have availed of: set up an in­de­pen­dent com­mis­sion to re­view fed­eral ac­cess law, and abide by the rec­om­men­da­tions the com­mis­sion sug­gests.

Af­ter all, the fed­eral gov­ern­ment al­ready has some­one who could be an able, ex­pe­ri­enced and in­formed chair. Canada’s In­for­ma­tion Com­mis­sioner, Suzanne Legault, is not seek­ing a new term. With her ex­pe­ri­ence with the highs and lows of ac­cess leg­is­la­tion, she would be a more than able head of a com­mit­tee re­view­ing how the cur­rent act meets, or fails to meet, its goals.

It would be no cake­walk for the fed­eral gov­ern­ment. Legault wrote about her dis­ap­point­ment in the Trudeau gov­ern­ment’s ap­proach to ac­cess law im­prove­ments in her lat­est re­port: “Our in­ves­ti­ga­tions re­veal, once again, that the Act is be­ing used as a shield against trans­parency and is fail­ing to meet its pol­icy ob­jec­tive to fos­ter ac­count­abil­ity and trust in our gov­ern­ment.”

The Lib­er­als are still promis­ing a leg­isla­tive re­view of the law - some­time.

We’re not hold­ing our breath.

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