Tough on terrorism

(Part III)

Reprinted with permission from the Ottawa Citizen

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Friday, October 19, 2001

The Ottawa Citizen

It's well-known that Prime Minister Jean Chrétien doesn't like Canada's access-to-information laws. But that doesn't make it right for the prime minister to use the new Anti-Terrorism Act as a means of further restricting what Canadians may know about their government.

Canada's access-to-information and privacy acts already include several exemptions that limit the full disclosure of some government-held information. These exemptions are meant to protect such things as commercial confidentiality, national security or details of an individual's personal life. If you want government-held information -- and taxpayers, after all, are entitled to know about the things they pay for -- but are denied it for these specific reasons, you can appeal to an independent commissioner who will review the application and the government's case for refusing to hand over the information.

It's a balanced approach, but apparently it's too permissive for the Liberals, who in recent years, have allowed government officials to refuse to cooperate with the information commissioner, even when ordered to do so by a court. The Prime Minister's Office also has launched nearly 20 court challenges to the commissioner's powers. And now the Liberals have included a couple of paragraphs in their omnibus anti-terrorism bill to allow Canada's attorney general, Justice Minister Anne McLellan, to personally exempt any information she wishes from the provisions of the access-to-information or privacy acts. She can do this on the grounds of protecting international relations, national defence or security. Under the new bill, there will be no independent review of her decision.

In other words, Canadians will have to take Ms. McLellan's word for it if she prevents government information from being made public on the nebulous grounds of protecting national security. She can keep secrets without notifying the public that she is doing so, and she won't be accountable to anyone for her decision.

There is a flip side to this problem. If the anti-terrorism bill is approved by Parliament, the government will also be free to share any personal information it holds on Canadian citizens and residents with foreign governments and agencies. Again, there will be no oversight by independent commissioners or the courts. The justice department justifies this sweeping power by claiming that some foreign governments won't share with Canada vital information that could help defeat terrorism if there were even a remote possibility it could be disclosed under our access-to-information or privacy laws.

This argument is ridiculous. The Chrétien government is exploiting current public concern about security in order to try to eliminate any oversight of its secrecy decisions by independent information and privacy commissioners (who do not report to the government, but directly to Parliament) or by independent courts.

Canada's existing laws provide ample protection against the release of sensitive information provided by foreign governments. In most cases, our non-disclosure laws exceed those in other countries, including the United States. No one thinks information should be withheld from U.S. authorities just because it might be made public south of the border one day (provided it doesn't fall under one of nine exemptions, including "classified national defence and foreign relations information"). So countries have no reason to be concerned about sharing information with Canada, given our even tougher laws.

The war against terrorism is supposed to be about preserving the rule of law, yet the Chrétien Liberals seem determined to use their omnibus anti-terrorism bill to put their decisions beyond independent scrutiny. Using the current crisis to stifle information is political opportunism. Parliament must not allow it to happen.

© Copyright 2001 The Ottawa Citizen

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