THE BLOG

Access to Info Was Mostly Gloomy With Some Rays of Light in 2014

12/18/2014 05:59 EST | Updated 02/17/2015 05:59 EST
KellyISP via Getty Images

We can't say 2014 was a banner year for Access to Information in this country.

According to the Centre for Law and Democracy, which publishes a ranking of countries that have right to information laws, Canada continues to drop and is now down to number 57 (out of 100).

And there are lots of reasons why Canada has dropped.

Federal Information Commissioner Suzanne Legault says she doesn't have the money to do her job after an 11 per cent budget cut. And this is at a time when the number of complaints about the federal government's handling of ATI requests is up more than 30 per cent. More than 75 per cent of those complaints were found to be valid, and that the government had wrongly denied information to the requesters.

Tony Clement, the minister responsible for the ATI system, conducted a 'consultation' on the government's future open government commitments in 2014, but has rejected all calls for urgently needed updates to the Access to Information Act. This is not surprising, since 42 per cent of attendees at the 'consultations' were from government, compared to 17 per cent from the community/non-profit sector.

The courts were not especially helpful to open government either. In May, the Supreme Court of Canada expanded the scope of the notorious 'policy advice' exception in laws across the country. It will take at least a decade before the high court is likely to have an opportunity to reconsider this decision.

Ministers' offices have become places where information disappears, since they are not considered to be part of the departments they are responsible for directing (thanks to another bad SCC decision). Similarly, cabinet documents are completely excluded from the operation of the Act, and neither the Commissioner nor the courts are allowed to look at them.

Interestingly, the Harper™ government has made it easier than ever for bureaucrats to claim that what you asked for in an ATI request is a 'cabinet document'. This will mean faster response times, but for a bunch of empty pages.

But there are some positive signs.

At the federal level, members of the public are the largest group of users of the ATIA system. This is the second year in a row that has happened, showing that ATI and FOI are vital tools for citizens to use in keeping government accountable.

Commissioner Legault will be coming out with her recommendations for updating the Act early in early 2015. This will put the spotlight on the very long list of things that are wrong with the system, and also will get a debate going on what needs to happen to fix the problems.

It will also have the salutary effect of forcing not just the government, but also the other political parties, to respond to the Commissioner's proposals in one way or another.

Finally, things are getting so bad that ATI might become a major issue in the federal election in 2015. In the Vancouver municipal election we saw transparency become a major issue during the campaign, with the parties falling over each other to promise more openness.

I would suggest federal leaders avoid the rush and get in on the push for transparency before getting trampled by it.