Info watchdog chastises PMO for attacks on right to know
Thursday, June 6, 2002
- Prime Minister Jean Chretien and his senior officials continue to display a
"hostile attitude" towards the public right of access to government
records, says the federal information watchdog.
his annual report tabled Thursday, Information Commissioner John Reid said the
Liberal government's "harsh attacks" on the principle of transparency
heighten concerns that "no serious effort" will be made to modernize
and strengthen the 19-year-old Access to Information Act, currently under
the ombudsman for users of the federal access law, gave the government an
overall grade of C on information issues, saying there was "much room for
commissioner says things became "tougher than ever" for information
seekers last year because of federal moves to restrict access to ministers'
expense reports, the passage of anti-terrorism legislation that ushers in new
secrecy powers, and the outright disdain shown by senior officials in certain
stressed that most rank-and-file public servants take pride in helping
administer the access program, which allows requesters who pay $5 to ask for a
variety of government records, including audits, correspondence, studies and
at the senior level of government, there remains a more hostile attitude towards
the right of access."
are supposed to answer requests within 30 days but can impose time extensions
and additional fees.
who reports to Parliament, investigates complaints from dissatisfied requesters.
Since assuming the post four years ago, he has frequently tangled with the
Liberal government over interpretations of the act and his right to probe
allegations of non-compliance with the law.
is a fact that the Clerk of the Privy Council insists on the broadest possible
interpretation of the scope of cabinet secrecy," says Reid's report.
well, the prime minister is personally committed to insulating his office and
offices of ministers from the act's coverage and from the information
commissioner's investigative jurisdiction."
year the government decided to no longer release the travel expense records of
the prime minister, his cabinet and ministerial staff members, arguing there was
a legal obligation, pursuant to a 1997 court ruling, to protect the privacy of
says the policy decision was made by the Prime Minister's Office to ensure
consistency with its arguments in a separate, high-profile court fight to keep
other documents - Chretien's daily agendas - under wraps. "The new travel
expense secrecy, as it turns out, is just an unfortunate casualty of the `agenda
public pressure, the policy on travel expenses was reversed last March. Duncan
Fulton, a spokesman for Chretien, insisted Thursday the prime minister "has
been very clear" that expense-related documents must be released to the
an interview, Reid said that's not good enough. He would prefer the right be a
legal one rather than "based on grace and favour" of the prime
commissioner cites several other worrying trends:
Some officials have become reluctant to write things down for fear the notes
will become public.
Exclusion of several new agencies from the access law, the latest being the
proposed Waste Management Organization for nuclear refuse.
Departments taking extensions of several years beyond the 30-day response
deadline - "a troubling new development."
adds that given the government's stance on access issues, he expects little
action in response to a forthcoming task force report on the information act.
"Worse, suspicion is understandable that the rights contained in this law
may be further eroded in the guise of `reform'. "
commissioner reports some positive developments, noting that although the
government received more requests than ever in 2001-02, a lower percentage
resulted in complaints than in the previous year.
addition, the government has begun to address the "sorry state of
information management" that often makes it difficult to locate records.
And some agencies have beefed up resources to answer requests more efficiently.
Fulton pointed to the improvements as noteworthy. "Overall, I think (Reid)
noted a number of positive things."
Alliance MP John Reynolds, however, agreed with Reid's conclusions. "We're
not getting information we require, and it's quite obvious this government has
to clean up its act."