Open ethics office to scrutiny: watchdog

Increasing secrecy 'is a pattern,' John Reid says

Reprinted with permission from the Ottawa Citizen

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Monday, December 16, 2002

Rick Mofina
The Ottawa Citizen

Legislation that shields the new federal ethics office from public scrutiny is another step in increasing government secrecy, Canada's information commissioner told a Commons committee yesterday.

"This is a pattern," John Reid said, as he called for Parliament's new ethics watchdog to be covered under the Access to Information Act.

In October, the Chrétien government introduced a bill calling for the creation of an ethics commissioner who would have the authority to investigate and rule on allegations that MPs or senators violated a new code of conduct for the Commons and Senate.

The office of the current ethics counsellor, Howard Wilson, is subject to Canada's access laws, meaning that the public can request and often receive copies of documents from his office.

But that's not the case with the new ethics office, said Mr. Reid.

He told the ad hoc multi-party committee of MPs reviewing the access act that the exclusion represents a further creeping toward more secrecy, suggesting that the government seizes every chance it gets to keep its warts from public view.

"What do you think of the government's proposal in the new legislation to eliminate the office of the ethics commissioner being subject to the Access to Information Act?" Mr. Reid asked the committee.

"The previous office was subject to the Access to Information Act. We had no problem. They had no problem.

"We see that cabinet, where it has a choice between putting something in or taking it out, tends to take it out," Mr. Reid said.

Exempting the new ethics office from the access act was proposed as a means for rank and file parliamentarians to maintain control over the process, which, under the current system, is largely in the hands of the prime minister, Liberal committee member Derek Lee suggested.

The ad hoc committee, which lacks official parliamentary standing, was established last year to give backbench and opposition MPs a voice in reform of the access legislation.

It is urging the government to expand its 19-year-old access to information law to include nearly 200 additional federal organizations that receive public money.

But in his appearance yesterday, Mr. Reid suggested that, while the committee calls for more transparency, it also suggests steps for more secrecy, such as excluding informal notes made by public servants from the act and exempting draft internal audit reports from release.

Mr. Reid has called for a full review of the access law by a Commons committee with parliamentary standing.

It has also encouraged greater openness, calling, for example, for access to deliberations of the federal cabinet after 15 years instead of 20.

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