New access law could bring more government secrecy, says information watchdog

Reprinted with permission from Canadian Press

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Thursday, October 10, 2002

Nahlah Ayed

Canadian Press

OTTAWA (CP) - The Access to Information law is in danger of becoming a vehicle for making government information even more secret if changes proposed by an insider task force are accepted, the federal access watchdog says.

The government task force, made up of bureaucrats, is so biased in favour of the government that its changes would undermine the spirit of the Access to Information Act, John Reid says in a pointed report tabled Thursday in Parliament. "I fear that these proposals to amend the Access to Information Act are a recipe for turning a good access law into a strong secrecy law," he said.

"Once again we are . . . confronted with the reality that bureaucrats like secrets - they always have; they will go to absurd lengths to keep secrets from the public and even from each other."

Reid did applaud some initiatives the task force proposed, such as making Crown corporations subject to access laws and relaxing cabinet secrecy.

But he took issue with recommendations that would double the number of exemptions and exclusions the government could use to refuse to disclose information.

He also criticized proposals that would make it harder and more expensive for people to use the law, and would limit the investigative powers of the information commissioner, who resolves disputes on access to information requests.

Reid called on the government to widen the debate through public hearings by a parliamentary committee before introducing legislation.

Reid suggested in an interview that the status quo is better.

The changes would "sweep away a lot of information that's now available into secrecy," he said.

"It makes it more difficult for the user to use the system and it makes it much more easy for the bureaucracy to avoid answering questions."

The government appointed the task force in 2000 in a move that undermined parliamentary efforts to review the law.

An ad hoc committee of MPs had wanted to hold hearings on the subject, but the government wouldn't give bureaucrats permission to appear before it.

Canadian Alliance MP Vic Toews, a member of the ad hoc committee, applauded Reid's report Thursday, saying it confirms his suspicions.

He said keeping government records as accessible as possible to Canadians is important - not least because it allows for the discovery of government wrongdoing.

Documents obtained by the Alliance under the access act revealed that Solicitor General Lawrence MacAulay gave an untendered contract to a firm in which his friend was a principal.

"It was only through access requests that we've been able to discover these things," Toews said.

"The government's position is only to prevent that kind of access."

The Liberal chair of the ad hoc committee, however, appeared more conciliatory Thursday.

MP John Bryden said Reid was too harsh and that he didn't give the task force enough credit for its positive proposals.

"I usually find myself on the side of the information commissioner," he said.

"But I think that if we're going to move this whole business forward . . . we also have to give the government encouragement where it is proposing major changes."

Bryden said he doesn't endorse Reid's proposal to send the matter to a parliamentary committee again. He said there can be more debate when a bill is proposed.

"Too much time has gone by. I'm absolutely fed up with this constant debating which never leads to legislation."

Nearly 200 of the 246 government bodies are excluded from the Access to Information Act, meaning no one can use the system to access any of their records.

 Copyright  2002 The Canadian Press

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