Info watchdog chastises PMO for attacks on right to know

Reprinted with permission from Southam Newspapers

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Thursday, June 6, 2002

Jim Bronskill

Southam Newspapers 

OTTAWA - 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.

In 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 review.

Reid, 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 improvement."

The 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 cases.

Reid 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 opinion polls.

"Yet, at the senior level of government, there remains a more hostile attitude towards the right of access."

Departments are supposed to answer requests within 30 days but can impose time extensions and additional fees.

Reid, 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.

"It 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.

"As 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."

Last 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 these individuals.

Reid 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 books' case."

Following 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 public 

In 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 minister.

The 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."

Reid 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'. "

The 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.

In 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."

Canadian 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."

-----(Southam News)


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