Feds to extend access to info

Reprinted with permission from Canadian Press

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Tuesday, August 6, 2002

Louise Elliott

Canadian Press

OTTAWA (CP) -- Extending the Access to Information Act to Crown corporations and other institutions not currently covered by the law will be among the major changes introduced this fall by Prime Minister Jean Chretien, sources have told The Canadian Press.

The change, an attempt to make the government and its arms-length bodies appear more accountable, would place a large amount of information now secret under public scrutiny, sources said.

"Should you have Crown corporations, such as the Export Development Corp. and Canada Post, which are exempt (from the law)? No, you shouldn't," said a senior Chretien adviser last week, on condition of anonymity.

The change will likely see the creation of a new list of Crown corporations and other federal entities that will be subject to the law, the adviser said.

Only eight Crown corporations are currently covered by the Act while many others are not, a situation the source called a double standard.

"Why the dichotomy? They're distinctions without a difference."

One senior bureaucrat who also requested anonymity said the prime minister's office is now working overtime in order to bring in the changes, which could appear in a Throne Speech announcement or as a bill tabled in the Commons.

Protections are being designed for some information, the release of which could jeopardize the competitiveness of Crown companies, the source said.

Currently exempt from the law are key entities such as the CBC, Canada Post and the Canadian Wheat Board along with other recently created bodies such as Canadian Blood Services and NavCan, the air-traffic control agency.

Alasdair Roberts, an expert on Canadian Access law at the University of Syracuse, said the changes will be meaningful only if the government is required to include all bodies that meet a mandatory set of criteria.

He said the recommendation of a government task force report tabled this spring did not go far enough because it called for a provision that would give the government a choice over which corporations to include.

"That is a pretty ineffective recommendation," he said. "What makes us think the government is going to include more (newly created bodies) in the future."

Sources said the changes this fall would target specific Crown corporations in order to make accessible their financial transactions, as well as the salaries and benefits of top staff.

The push has created resistance within more than one government department because some bureaucrats feel they are not being adequately consulted prior to a major overhaul.

Officials at some Crown corporations would not comment last week on whether they had heard of the changes.

Rod Giles, a spokesman for the Economic Development Corp., said there are already ample provisions in place to ensure public transparency without jeopardizing the business interests of public companies.

"We're quite concerned (about any potential changes) because our mandate itself is potentially threatened," he said.

The Access to Information Act currently protects commercially sensitive information from release. But some Crown corporations have said they need the additional protection of complete exclusion from the reach of the law.

A government contract scandal this spring brought renewed cries for greater accountability for the spending practices throughout government.

Critics have argued the creation of arms-length bodies that are exempt from the act allows government to hide questionable spending practices.

Auditor General Sheila Fraser, who issued a scathing report on Quebec advertising contracts distributed by the Public Works Department, is now investigating the allocation of government contracts by all departments.

In Ontario, controversy surrounding the salary, benefits and severance packages for top officials at the province's publicly owned power transmitter, Hydro One, led to the firing of chief executive officer Eleanor Clitheroe, and have further focused attention on the dealings of Crown companies.

Roberts argued that unless the country's information commissioner is given greater power to enforce the law, any changes to the legislation now under way won't make government more accountable.

Currently, the Act covers the Canada Deposit Insurance Corp., the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp., the Canada Ports Corp., the Canadian Commercial Corp., the Canadian Film Development Corp., the Farm Credit Corp. and the Freshwater Fish Marketing Corp. and the Seaway International Bridge Corp.

The prime minister's office is also considering the quicker declassification of cabinet documents, one source said. Currently, cabinet documents are kept secret for 20 years, after which they can be requested under the Access to Information Act. After 30 years they are made widely available through the National Archives.

Roberts argued shortening the time limit would not be enough. Only a provision allowing the courts and the information commissioner to decide whether cabinet documents should be made public would ensure adequate transparency surrounding government decisions, he said.  

 Copyright 2002 The Canadian Press

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