06/21/2012 12:50 EDT | Updated 08/21/2012 05:12 EDT

Saskatchewan privacy commissioner loses patience with government

REGINA - Saskatchewan's privacy commissioner is taking the government to task for refusing to release ministerial briefing books and ignoring repeated requests to do so.

Gary Dickson issued a report Thursday saying his pleas to Executive Council, the ministry that supports Premier Brad Wall and cabinet, have gone unheeded for years.

"We've only had to issue 60 reports in the nine years I've been here. This is probably the most egregious I can think of in terms specifically of delay," said Dickson.

"I don't know whether it's fair to expect more of that ministry than any other ministry. But that is the senior ministry in the Saskatchewan government. I mean that's the place you would hope would be modelling best transparency practices."

Dickson launched a review in 2008 when someone requested access to 23 briefing books — about 10,000 pages — assembled for the new cabinet and ministers after the 2007 provincial election.

Executive Council denied access to all records citing a section of The Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (FOIP).

Dickson wanted to see some of the material and hear why it should be kept under wraps. He sent a letter to Executive Council on March 5, 2008. Seven more messages were sent because Dickson never got an answer.

The material arrived at the privacy's commissioner's office July 6, 2009 — 16 months after the first request.

Executive Council argued that the briefing notes were "unique." It said the transition briefings should be considered advice from officials and that it was critical to keep such information private to ensure "full, open and frank briefings on a wide range of policy issues."

A preliminary analysis by the privacy commissioner suggested the exemption would not be upheld. Council was told to do a line by line review of the record and separate truly confidential material.

Over the next 15 months, Dickson waited for a response from Executive Council. He sent seven reminders.

Last Nov. 17 — 10 days after the Saskatchewan Party was re-elected — Executive Council said it disagreed with Dickson's preliminary analysis. It raised a new exemption — four years after the original request was made.

Dickson's office provided further analysis in March and told council again that the burden of proof had not been met to justify keeping all the information secret.

Executive Council then invoked yet a third exemption.

Dickson looked at three of the 23 briefing books as a representative sample.

"The briefing books certainly include what appear to be some material that would qualify as cabinet confidence and something that certainly deserves protection," he said.

"But there's a lot of material in there, which, frankly, much of it's already publicly available. It's like lists and biographies and names and job titles of senior people in different ministries. It's a list of public sector organizations in that ministry's particular area. There's some statistical information that ... doesn't reveal anything about what cabinet is talking about.

"Although cabinet confidences are really important to protect ... you can't lump everything in and treat it exactly the same way when you have different kinds of information in the documents."

The government would not comment on Dickson's report. An official said in an email to The Canadian Press that the government just received the report and is reviewing it.

The Saskatchewan Party has in the past campaigned on a promise to be more transparent and accountable than other governments.

Dickson said his difficulty is that Executive Council refuses to separate background material from cabinet confidences.

The commissioner also didn't accept Executive Council's assertions that the briefing books constitute unique circumstances.

"The access rights of the citizens of Saskatchewan are best served if FOIP is applied in a consistent matter and not altered at the discretion of the government institution which has possession and control of the record," he said.

Apart from the fact that council won't release the information, the delay has been "disappointing," Dickson said.

"You would hope that they would have a plan to be able to deal with that in a forthright and expeditious manner," he said. "But in fact what happened is four years of trying to just get the record and then the idea of new exemptions being raised years after the review had started."