The law that's intended to give Canadians access to government files is being used instead as a shield against transparency, information commissioner Suzanne Legault said in her annual report tabled Thursday.
Suzanne Legault, Information Commissioner of Canada, speaks during a press conference in Ottawa on Oct. 17, 2013. (Photo: Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)
Legault said her investigations reveal the Access to Information Act is failing to foster accountability and trust.
The act allows people who pay $5 to ask for everything from expense reports and audits to correspondence and briefing notes. Requests are supposed to be answered within 30 days, and agencies must have legitimate reasons for taking extensions.
However, the system has been widely criticized as slow, antiquated and riddled with loopholes that allow agencies to withhold information rather than release it.
A number of key institutions that possess valuable information for Canadians showed declines in performance, said Legault, an ombudsman for users of the law.
"I think he needs to do more. And I think he needs to make sure that the bureaucracy does more. It's not enough to say it."
In terms of timeliness, the RCMP, Canada Revenue Agency, Correctional Service and Global Affairs received F grades, while National Defence and Health Canada were branded with the even more serious Red Alert status.
The latest federal budget contained no funding for transparency measures and there has been no direction from the head of the public service on increasing transparency, Legault said.
Trudeau's promises of making the government more open and accountable must be accompanied by action, she told a news conference. "I think he needs to do more. And I think he needs to make sure that the bureaucracy does more. It's not enough to say it."
The Liberal government recently acknowledged it is delaying promised reforms to the 34-year-old law — changes Legault maintains are essential and long overdue.
'Champions for transparency are absent'
Treasury Board President Scott Brison did take a first step last year, issuing a ministerial directive to enshrine the principle that federal agencies should be "open by default."
Legault said the move, on its own, is not sufficient.
"If you want to truly change a whole culture in a very large bureaucracy, you're going to have to make a concerted effort. There are going to have to be clear messages from the prime minister, the responsible ministers, the clerk of the Privy Council," she said.
"Sadly, champions for transparency are absent."