decries tilt toward 'secrecy'
Current proposals dangerous, Reid says
Reprinted with permission from the Ottawa
Friday, October 11, 2002
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
"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
"By any reasonable measure, the task force review 'process'
was entirely inadequate for determining how to strengthen the right of
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
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