to extend access to info
with permission from Canadian Press
Tuesday, August 6, 2002
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
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