laws 'threaten democracy'
Freedom-of-information system promotes government secrecy, citizens group
Reprinted with permission from the Ottawa
Thursday, July 26, 2001
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,"
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
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
"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