House leader wants to muzzle committee reviewing Access to Information Act

MP calls response 'a little unfortunate'

Reprinted with permission from the Kingston Whig-Standard

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Saturday, August 11, 2001

Jen Ross
Southam News

OTTAWA - Government House Leader Don Boudria has warned fellow Liberal MP John Bryden on Friday that any review of the Access to Information Act undertaken by Bryden's ad hoc committee would be "incomplete and unsatisfactory."

"This very important task ought to be undertaken in an orderly and rational process, fully regulated by the rules of Parliament, and it is our intention to proceed in this manner," Boudria wrote to Bryden in the letter dated Thursday, Aug. 9.

Bryden called the tone of Boudria's letter "a little unfortunate," and said he is drafting a response.

Three months ago, the Ontario MP set up an ad hoc all-party committee to parallel an official government Task Force preparing changes to the Access to Information Act. Bryden said he did so because the official review was run by bureaucrats affected by the act and might have an interest in limiting access. Moreover, the task force proceedings are not open to the public.

"These are briefings that must be taking place in the open, all the moreso because of the type of legislation we're talking about," he said in an interview.

The Access to Information Act gives MPs, journalists and members of the general public the opportunity to request certain government documents. 

Boudria's letter not only snipes at Bryden's non-official committee, but it spells out that government bureaucrats will not be allowed to appear before it, because they would not be protected by parliamentary privilege and their statements could influence court proceedings currently relating to the Access Act.

For example, the federal Information Commissioner is in court seeking access to denied documents from the Prime Minister's Office including the appointment books of Jean Chretien. Bryden said he understands why PMO officials would be excluded but he was floored by the government's decision not to let any official appear.

"Why should a court case with the PMO affect an official from the National Archives coming to talk to a group of MPs?" he asked.

Critics are lambasting Boudria's letter as a gag order.

"This is an extremely hostile act by the cabinet and they are essentially putting the leash back on MPs," said Mike Gordon, chairman of Open Government Canada, a coalition of groups concerned about access to information. "The letter is saying that we, the cabinet, do not want to allow any public review; we want to control the Access Act . . . and our little closed task force will be adequate to that effect."

Boudria was on holiday and unavailable for comment, but officials in his office explained that the issue is procedural. They said if Bryden's "group" has a problem with the official task force's recommendations, they can voice their concerns at the standing committee stage, which will be public, after the task force has proposed legislation.

Bryden said that it is difficult to change legislation then because the government dominates those committees. His group of backbenchers is trying to help formulate policy at the beginning. His committee will recommend its own changes in October.

Ned Franks, a Queen's University politics professor and expert on Parliament, said Boudria's points are accurate because Bryden's group of parliamentarians is not an official Parliamentary committee. But he says Boudria goes further than he needs to in muzzling public servants who might want to appear before the committee:

"If you read between the lines, he's saying, `we have no sympathy for what you're doing so buzz off'."

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