Access laws 'threaten democracy'

Freedom-of-information system promotes government secrecy, citizens group report claims

Reprinted with permission from the Ottawa Citizen

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Thursday, July 26, 2001

James Baxter
The Ottawa Citizen

Canada's access to information rules encourage elected officials and public servants to hide behind a wall of secrecy, a coalition of citizens groups charged yesterday.

"The current federal access to information system actually encourages secretive and unaccountable behaviour by our cabinet ministers and public officials," said Democracy Watch co-ordinator Duff Conacher as he released a report containing 47 recommendations to improve openness and public trust in government.

"Many changes are needed to end the government's culture of secrecy that threatens democracy."

Mr. Conacher, whose Open Government Canada coalition includes private citizens, journalists, librarians and legal experts, said the government should do away with provisions that allow ministers and public servants to automatically exempt certain types of correspondence and records.

The exemptions should be replaced with a "proof of harm test" where the onus is on the government to justify keeping the materials secret, he said.

Mr. Conacher also said rules should be amended to include access to the agendas of elected officials. Canadians should have the right to know who is lobbying their leaders and, as in the case of the Shawinigan golf course controversy, "who the prime minister is lobbying," he maintained.

The report also recommends that:

  • Crown corporation, quasi-governmental organizations such as the Export Development Corporation and other institutions that receive federal funding be subject to the access law;
  • The period that minutes of cabinet meetings are kept secret be reduced from 20 years to 15, or even 10 years;
  • Inquiry fees be kept to a minimum.

Mr. Conacher also called for Canada's Information Commissioner John Reid to be given powers to punish officials who flout information regulations.

He said he fears the task force of public servants currently examining the access issue will make it even easier for federal officials to use new access act laws to hide all forms of potentially embarrassing information.

"The government is trying to manipulate the review of access to information issues to entrench government secrecy," said Mr. Conacher. "A more independent body should be empowered to conduct an open, full and fair review of the system."

Mr. Reid has stated publicly that he, too, fears the government will use the guise of reform to seriously weaken the access law and tighten the federal grip on potentially embarrassing records. He said it would be better to leave the current law unchanged, even though he calls it somewhat outdated, than to allow it to be made more government-friendly.

The task force has held a series of roundtable consultations with senior officials and federal employees who process access requests, as well as users of the law such as historians, librarians and journalists.

In his annual report, Mr. Reid proposed improving the law to allow greater access to cabinet documents, requiring timely responses to access requests, provisions to protect whistleblowers and extension of the law to more institutions, including Parliament, the CBC and Canada Post.

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Freedom of Information Coalition

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