czar fears 'zone of secrecy' expanding
Government watchdog 'disappointed' by access
task force's 'timid' report
Reprinted with permission from the Ottawa
Wednesday, June 19, 2002
The Ottawa Citizen
The federal information watchdog has lambasted a government task
force's proposed changes to the country's freedom-of-information law
as timid moves that would "expand the zone of secrecy in
In his first comments on the task force report released last week,
Information Commissioner John Reid expressed concern yesterday that
the recommendations would make using the Access to Information Act
more difficult for the public.
He also called on the government to respond to the report, prepared
by a panel of senior public servants, by referring the matter of
access-to-information reform to a parliamentary committee for hearings
before introduction of any legislative changes.
"The problem with the task force report is the pervasive
influence of the 'insider perspective' on its content," Mr. Reid
said in a written statement. "This task force, by its nature,
could not be the vehicle for meaningful public participation and
consideration of all relevant points of view."
Treasury Board President Lucienne Robillard, one of the ministers
responsible for access rights, said yesterday it wasn't the
government's place to ask a committee to study the issue.
"Parliamentary committees have the power to take any
initiative they want to," she said following question period.
The Access to Information Act enables people who pay a $5
application fee to request a variety of records held by government
departments. But critics have called for improvements to the access
law, which has barely changed since coming into effect 19 years ago.
The task force, which spent almost two years on its study,
recommended access to deliberations of the federal cabinet after 15
years instead of 20, measures to improve government information
management and the processing of access requests, and order-making
powers for the information commissioner, who is now limited largely to
an ombudsman's role.
However, several recommendations would result in diminished public
access to records such as draft audits, information obtained from
foreign authorities and some files related to police investigations.
In addition, the task force recommends doubling the application charge
to $10 -- a move that could result in fewer requests -- as well as a
range of other fee increases and introduction of the right to refuse
to answer frivolous or abusive requests.
"I am disappointed by the timid nature and paltry number of
user-friendly recommendations," Mr. Reid said. "If followed,
the recommendations for legislative change in the report would
significantly expand the zone of secrecy in Canada."
Mr. Reid was not commenting further yesterday, but his office made
it clear the commissioner has several specific concerns about the task
force recommendations, including:
- Lack of a clear-cut call for expansion of the act to many
government institutions that currently fall outside the law. Instead,
the report outlined a formula for determining whether the access law
- Measures that would actually increase the secrecy surrounding
background papers viewed by the federal cabinet.
- Further entrenchment of a section of the act that allows other
designated federal laws to effectively override access rights.
- New restrictions on the release of notes made by public servants.
- No introduction of penalties for government failure to meet
deadlines for responding to requests.
- Less time for requesters to complain about responses to the
© Copyright 2002 The Ottawa Citizen
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