Watchdog decries tilt toward 'secrecy'

Current proposals dangerous, Reid says

Reprinted with permission from the Ottawa Citizen

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Friday, October 11, 2002

Jim Bronskill
The Ottawa Citizen

Adoption of government task force proposals to overhaul the Access to Information Act would turn a law that's supposed to ensure openness into secrecy legislation, the federal information watchdog warns.

In a detailed response tabled in Parliament yesterday, Information Commissioner John Reid paints the federal panel recommendations as flawed and dangerous moves crafted by insiders that would seriously diminish the public's ability to know about government policies and programs.

"Once again we are, with this task force report, confronted with the reality that bureaucrats like secrets -- they always have," Mr. Reid says. "They will go to absurd lengths to keep secrets from the public and even from each other."

The Access to Information Act allows people who pay a $5 fee to request records held by federal departments and agencies. But many critics argue the law, which took effect in 1983, lags behind public expectations for government transparency.

Last June, a task force of federal bureaucrats issued a hefty report on the act after almost two years of study and consultation.

In his response, Mr. Reid says that process was "heavily weighted" toward the "insider" perspective. He argues that although Canadians were invited to make written submissions, the task force held numerous in-depth meetings with other senior bureaucrats and government officials -- sessions that unduly coloured its recommendations.

"By any reasonable measure, the task force review 'process' was entirely inadequate for determining how to strengthen the right of access."

The task force says it tried to consult a broad range of people interested in the access law, including journalists, historians and librarians, as well as other Canadians.

Mr. Reid takes issue with the fact the panel came up with only four major proposals for greater openness, including a call for access to deliberations of the federal cabinet after 15 years instead of 20.

At the same time, the commissioner points out, the task force recommended 15 measures for more secrecy -- from excluding informal notes made by public servants from the act to exempting draft internal audit reports from release.

"It would significantly take away from what Canadians now have," Mr. Reid said in an interview.

"They have not made very convincing arguments for reducing the amount of information available."

Even the proposal on cabinet records contains wording that would actually increase secrecy, he argues.

Mr. Reid also criticizes:

- A plan to include more government agencies under the law as "falling far short of what was expected" because it gives the cabinet too much say on which entities would be covered.

- Measures to make the access act more user-friendly as "tentative, incomplete and grudging."

- The absence of new legislative proposals to improve the sorry state of government file-keeping.

The task force also called for doubling the application charge to $10, as well as a range of other fee increases and introduction of the right to refuse to answer frivolous or abusive requests.

Mr. Reid's response says every non-insider review of the access law during the last 20 years has recommended narrowing the scope of exemptions in the act, broadening the coverage to include new records and institutions, making the system speedier, reducing fee barriers and strengthening watchdog powers.

"The task force recommendations do not measure up to these expectations."

Mr. Reid urges the government to abandon any thought of drafting legislative reforms based on the recommendations in favour of handing them to a parliamentary committee for public review.

In the response, Mr. Reid also includes his own detailed proposals for reforming the law and the way it is administered. His changes would, among other things, make cabinet records more accessible, close gaps in the law's coverage, and add incentives and penalties for failure to respect deadlines for answering requests.

 Copyright 2002 The Ottawa Citizen


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