What does Ottawa have to hide?


Reprinted with permission from The National Post

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Saturday, October 21, 2000

Leacy O'Callaghan-O'Brien

Open Government Canada

The ongoing scandal of federal government secrecy reached a strange new peak this week. After decades of keeping public information safely locked away from public view, we learned about the latest bureaucratic tactic for stifling government openness and transparency. 

In his report, John Reid, the Federal Information Commissioner, details how top bureaucrats have been threatening the future career prospects of his staff members who dig for government documents on behalf of the public. 

"If members of the public service come to believe that it is career suicide to work, and do a good job, for the information commissioner, the future viability and effectiveness of the commissioner's office is in grave jeopardy," Mr. Reid wrote. 

It's a kind of self-concerned bureaucratic peer pressure we've never heard of before in Canada. 

And it's a clear sign that the code of silence sworn by federal officials who control our information is stronger than ever. 

The revelation throws a dark shadow over the recently announced review of this country's dated and restrictive Access to Information Act. 

With refreshing broad-mindedness, we were told in August that the much-anticipated review would be undertaken in a spirit of "openness and transparency." 

For the journalists, academics, librarians, public interest advocates, lawyers and other concerned citizens who participate in the Open Government Canada coalition, the announcement was both welcome and disturbing. 

Welcome, because Canada's Freedom of Information Act is one of the oldest in the Commonwealth and drastically in need of reform. Disturbing, because despite claims from Minister of Justice Anne McLellan that, "We all understand that the public needs to be involved in its justice system in order to have confidence in it," the absence of public consultation inspires hints at the outcome. If there were ever a piece of legislation that should benefit from public input, it's a law intended to protect the public's right to know. 

Yet Canadians are getting an internal review by bureaucrats with only modest input from a hand-picked advisory committee whose role is described as that of a sounding board. 

Once again, it appears the public is being left out of the discussion about its right to hold government accountable. 

And that means handing federal officials the power to oppress us unchallenged. 

It has been thus in Canada for too long.

By refusing to commit this process to public input and review, the federal government undermines its own stated goals of greater openness and accountability.

 It might even lead to public suspicion that greater openness and accountability are not in fact the true goals of this review. We came by our national culture of info-condescension honestly. Our British forebears taught us information is for the elite. It is they who will burden themselves with the messy details of public policy and government spending. 

And so, relative to our American cousins, we are in the dark about how we are governed. 

Self-serving bureaucrats in this country have had the power to deny and delay requests for information from the public and the media with impunity. Documents or data requested under the federal act are routinely kept locked in filing cabinets by government officials who interpret the legislation, with its many exemptions, to the benefit of their bosses and the detriment of the public that pays them. 

Crucial information about the air we breathe, the water we drink and where our taxpayer dollars are spent regularly falls within the spectrum of taboo information governments refuse to disclose or which they delay beyond reason. 

Knowledge about drugs and medications we consume, the safety of the food we eat and Canada's foreign and domestic policies are part of an expanding black hole of understanding we have of ourselves. 

It's all thanks to an institutionalized bureaucratic culture of secrecy in Canada. 

This information belongs to us. But the custodians have locked the door. Those charged with reforming access laws must put the public at the centre of this review.

They should ensure an independent survey of users of the current act, citizens, and civil servants, especially access officers and parliamentarians, to understand how and why it protects secrecy and undermines public accountability. 

They should seek out research papers by independent scholars and technical experts that look critically and comparatively at the state of the art of government information throughout the world so we can adopt the best practices and technology in access, disclosure, preservation and dissemination. 

Finally, they should gather an independent panel of experts and representatives of different sectors and organizations to evaluate all of the above and prepare a final report. 

Federal bureaucrats have been permitted to practise secrecy unquestioned since well before the current act was born 17 years ago. 

This time, for the first time, honest and scathing criticism of government secrecy cannot be allowed to fade like vague echoes in the corridors of Parliament.

Leacy O'Callaghan-O'Brien is the chairwoman of Open Government Canada. 

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