09/28/2012 04:00 EDT | Updated 11/27/2012 05:12 EST

Info czar kicks off blue-sky review of federal access to information law

OTTAWA - Canada's access to information law is "not up to par" with more progressive legislation adopted by other governments in the last decade, says the federal information commissioner.

As she kicks of a blue-sky review of the Access to Information Act, Suzanne Legault says she wants to see how the aging law stacks up against measures passed by the provinces and far-flung countries.

Legault cites developments in Australia, Britain and Mexico as reference points for Canada's access law, which has changed little in three decades.

"It's not up to par with the most progressive regimes," she said in an interview. "I think that that is a given."

The Access to Information Act received royal assent in 1982 and took effect the following year. It allowed Canadians who pay $5 to request information in federal files, such as briefing notes, polls, correspondence and expense reports.

Ideally, requests are supposed to be answered within 30 days, but departments and agencies often take longer. Not all agencies are covered. Cabinet records are completely off-limits for 20 years. And officials can withhold a wide range of information, including advice from bureaucrats, security-related material and correspondence from other governments.

A new assessment by the Halifax-based Centre for Law and Democracy places the federal law in a tie for last place, with Alberta and New Brunswick, among Canadian access regimes.

Legault, an ombudsman for users of the federal law, will release a questionnaire Friday with more than five dozen queries on everything from changing the application fee to whether Parliament and the courts — which are exempt from the law — should be covered.

It will seek advice from the public on the processing of requests in the digital era, powers of the information commissioner, declassification of secret documents and record-keeping practices.

The review begins on the 10th anniversary of Right to Know Day, which traces its roots to a global gathering of access to information advocates in Bulgaria in 2002.

"We really wanted to look at a broad range of models, and look at the best solutions that are out there," Legault said. "And this exercise will allow us to have that kind of review."

Legault said her office is in a unique position to provide a perspective on what should be done with the law since it sees the daily grind and flow of access requests from Canadians through the complaint files it handles.

The access process is well-entrenched across the Canadian government and is respected for the most part, said Legault. "That being, there are deficiencies in the act that we encounter in our investigations."

Stephen Harper's Conservatives broke a 2006 campaign promise to enact sweeping legislative reforms proposed by then-information commissioner John Reid.

The government did expand the scope of the law to include Crown corporations such as the CBC and Canada Post.

Still, Legault says the fact some elements of government are excused from the access law means a "piecemeal application" of the act.

She also has concerns about the ability of agencies to take lengthy extensions — often many months — to answer requests. "There is too little discipline in the federal legislation in terms of timeliness — the possibility for extensions is way too broad."

One thing Legault would definitely like to see is a requirement for a periodic, mandatory parliamentary review of the access law, say every five years. "It usually leads to improvements in the legislation over time."

It also ensures there is a regular debate on the importance of access to information, she said.

Legault plans to participate in chats about Right to Know Day via Twitter on Friday afternoon.

She expects to deliver a report to Parliament with recommendations from her review in the fall of next year, just months after the 30th anniversary of the coming into force of the access law.

Since abandoning most of their 2006 pledges, the Conservatives have shown no enthusiasm for updating the act.

In October 2009, Justice Minister Rob Nicholson rejected a Commons committee's call for changes, saying the access act was a strong piece of legislation.

At an international meeting in Brazil last April, the Conservatives promised to create a virtual library of government documents, improve federal record-keeping, make more archival material accessible, and build on efforts to release government data sets.