OTTAWA - The Conservative government has rejected calls to reform the Access to Information Act as part of a new openness plan.
The final version of the federal blueprint on open government for 2014-16 remains silent on updating the 32-year-old law despite public pleas during several consultations — including a recent round of public feedback on a draft version.
The final plan, published Thursday, commits the government to making more information and data — including scientific research, federal spending and archival records — readily available.
However, it suggests no legislative changes to the access law, which allows people who pay $5 to request government records ranging from correspondence to expense reports.
Treasury Board President Tony Clement defended the law in an interview Thursday as "a good piece of legislation."
Opposition parties, pro-democracy groups and members of the government's own advisory panel have urged modernization, saying the law, enacted in 1983, allows federal agencies to hold back too much information.
Federal information commissioner Suzanne Legault wrote Clement earlier this year to say revision of the law is "the one element" that must be included in the open government plan.
Reform of the law was also recommended during federal online consultations for the openness initiative and during meetings in four cities.
But the only promised changes to the access system involve improving administration.
The plan disappointed Duff Conacher, a board member of Democracy Watch, whose organization encouraged about 2,000 people to submit letters to Clement's department advocating an overhaul of the law.
The group says the act's built-in exemptions — coupled with Legault's inability to force departments to comply with the law — leave important files under wraps.
"The loopholes allow government to hide the information that shows corrupt, wasteful, abusive actions," Conacher said.
"The Conservatives have ignored the call from most groups involved in this issue across the country for a stronger Access to Information Act and an information commissioner with enforcement powers."
The NDP and Liberals have put forward private member's bills to update the access law, but the legislative efforts haven't been embraced by the Conservatives.
The government is "doing absolutely nothing" to modernize the act, said NDP digital issues critic Charmaine Borg, calling the lack of action "very problematic" and not "a road to real openness."
Clement said the government is concentrating on making progress on the existing access law. "The structure of the act, I think, is basically a good structure."
The open government plan stresses proactive release of information and use of online systems to make downloading information and filing formal requests easier.
"What I'm doing is working within the current framework of a good piece of legislation to use the tools of the 21st century to make the information more widely available, quicker than has been the case in the past," Clement said.
He pointed to the plan's "open science" component, which would create a one-stop catalogue of publications and data flowing from federal research activities.
The government has been accused of muzzling scientists with findings on issues such as climate change that don't mesh with the federal agenda.
Clement said while scientists give "thousands of interviews" a year, they should not speak for the government in all cases.
"As an elected representative in a flourishing democracy, we need a system where the primary spokesperson on certain political issues is the politician — the elected representative — not an unelected government employee scientist."
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