Access to irony

Reprinted with permission from The National Post

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Thursday, August 23, 2001


National Post

No Canadian statute carries a more ironic title than the Access to Information Act, a law that reduces the amount of government information available and is debated by federal mandarins in well protected secrecy.

The 18-year-old Act is currently the subject of several reviews and court cases. Each one is, itself, steeped in irony. Over the summer, a committee of MPs led by Liberal backbencher John Bryden has been examining how Access to Information works. When the committee attempted to question civil servants on the operation of the law, the federal Cabinet forbade their appearance. A committee of elected officials looking into Access to Information was thus denied both information and access. Concurrently, a panel of 12 public servants is meeting to decide on the Act's future -- behind closed doors, naturally.

Then there were the 15 lawsuits and legal challenges launched by the Prime Minister's Office against the Office of the Information Commissioner. These were intended to block Commissioner John Reid in his attempts to fulfill his obligations under the Act and decide whether the Prime Minister's agenda books ought to be released to the public. The head of the government is suing his own administration for obeying the laws of the land.

This week saw the release of a Public Policy Forum discussion series on the usefulness of the Access to Information Act. Four round-table discussions were held by the forum involving individuals from a wide variety of backgrounds. Participants explained the law has become hopelessly perverted in its implementation. It was initially intended to provide a formal process for requesting information that would complement informal procedures, such as telephoning bureaucrats. Now, however, informal requests have become largely fruitless. The only way to receive many types of information is to make a formal request with its attendant delays, paperwork and fees. In many ways, forum participants said, it was easier to get information before the law came into effect.

While those who crafted the 1983 law predicted that it would allow for "the maximum amount of information to be released," as one round-table participant put it, nervous bureaucrats are in reality so afraid that any information released will cast them in a bad light that they apply the provisions of the law in such a way as to restrict output to a minimum. Wariness has also resulted in a decline in written work product, according to the forum summary. Access to Information legislation has led, in sum, to less information being produced and less information being released.

The federal Liberals have taken what was supposed to be a clear window on the inner workings of the federal government and turned it into a piece of smoked glass. The solutions to this situation are obvious. Mr. Reid must be insulated from intimidations and threats by government officials and allowed to do his job. Discussions about government openness must be conducted in public. And the federal Cabinet and its bureaucracy must recognize the fact that government information ultimately belongs not to them, but to the people who paid for its collection -- taxpayers.

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