PM pooh-poohs MP's review of access act

Reprinted with permission from Southam Newspapers

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Tuesday, August 28, 2001

Jen Ross

Southam Newspapers

OTTAWA - Prime Minister Jean Chretien dismissed Tuesday the efforts of backbench MPs reviewing the Access to Information Act.

Chretien said the ad hoc committee set up by Liberal MP John Bryden was not an official parliamentary committee and that members would have a chance for input before legislation is passed, after the official government task force reports. He also reiterated that no government bureaucrats would appear before Bryden's committee Bryden said he did not want to be "confrontational," but he interpreted the prime minister's words Tuesday as a move to muzzle backbench MPs.

"I think the real fear of cabinet is this whole idea that backbench MPs should develop major policy initiatives before the bureaucrats have formulated them. I think that's what's really behind the cabinet decision, because otherwise the cabinet would have everything to gain because we would have given credibility to the whole process."

Bryden set up the all-party committee three months ago to parallel the government's official task force charged with formulating changes to the Access to Information Act. Bryden said he did so because the official review was not public and it was run by bureaucrats affected by the act who might have an interest in limiting access.

On Aug. 9, House leader Don Boudria warned Bryden that government officials would not be allowed to appear before his committee because they would not be covered by parliamentary privilege and because their statements could influence court proceedings relating to the access act.

Democratic Representative Caucus MPand committee member Grant McNally went so far as to question whether the committee had any hope of making substantive changes after the PM's comments.

"The signal that's been sent by Mr. Boudria and the rejection of Mr. Bryden's bill . . . is that information is to be kept secret and not to be released,"said McNally. "Do you think there are any practical changes coming down the road with those in power having that attitude?"Bryden introduced a private member's bill to overhaul the access act lastyear, but it was easily defeated in the Commons.

In its third meeting Tuesday, Bryden's committee heard presenters for the Open Government Canada coalition, which includes private citizens, journalists, librarians, women's groups and legal experts. They presented a policy paper listing 47 recommendations on how to improve openness and public trust in government.

The suggestions included that any institution receiving funding from the federal government be covered by the act; that exemptions under the act be limited by a "proof of harm" test; that the $5 access fee be eliminated; and that penalties be created for unjustifiable delays in responses to information requests.

"The current federal access to information system actually encourages secretive and unaccountable behaviour by cabinet ministers and public officials," said Duff Conacher, a member of the OGC steering committee and co-ordinator of advocacy group Democracy Watch.

"A government that can act in secret or even usually in secret will abuse you. That's how dangerous it is."

Conacher and the other three presenters applauded Bryden's committee for being a more independent body that is conducting an "open and fair review" of the access system.But one committee member attacked this conclusion. "I'm curious as to why you would characterize this committee as somehow being some stand-up-to-the-government and fight-for-our-rights?" asked Liberal MPPaul Szabo. "We have a mandate laid out, and purposely it has nothing to do with any of the government."

He went on to pick apart the presenters' statements, at one point barking at Conacher about what Conacher perceived to be deliberate government attempts to hide information.

"Why would you say this is abuse and secrecy and all that other crap?" yelled Szabo, adding that one information request for all submissions from third parties to Industry Canada on a policy issue was an "abuse of democracy."

McNally and Alliance MP Vic Toews criticized Szabo's attacks and tone with presenters as out of line. Moreover, they said his comments seemed to have been scripted for him from the top, perhaps by the PM.

Szabo later stressed to reporters that this was not a formal committee and he questioned its efficacy.

"There's been three meetings of this committee and I'm the only one who has been at all of them as far as the Liberals,"said Szabo. "And I'm getting very concerned that maybe, just maybe, we haven't got our act together to be able to deserve to have government officials before us."

Bloc Quebecois committee member Paul Crete suggested asking the government to reconsider its decision about barring bureaucrat testimonies. He is now tabling a motion to that effect.

(Southam News)

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