OTTAWA – The New Democrats are calling on the Conservatives to give the federal information czar the money she needs to do her job as the first step toward fixing a “broken system” of accountability.
In a letter to Treasury Board President Tony Clement, NDP ethics critic Charlie Angus accuses the government of starving the Access to Information system of cash, hiding documents for political reasons and backpedalling on promises to reform the 32-year-old access law.
The letter follows information commissioner Suzanne Legault’s recent admission that her office can barely make ends meet _ a cash squeeze she says threatens the rights of Canadians.
The commissioner serves as an ombudsman for people who request federal records under the Access to Information Act, handling complaints about delays, fees, and problems obtaining documents from federal agencies.
Legault’s office had just $37,000 left at the end of the last fiscal year – or 0.2 per cent of her overall budget.
However, the number of new complaints rose by 30 per cent in 2013-14. That came on the heels of a nine-per-cent increase the year before.
“Starving the system of funds amidst a growing Conservative government culture of secrecy appears to be an effective method to deteriorate an individual’s right to access information and thereby limit government accountability,” Angus says in the letter.
The NDP provided a copy to The Canadian Press.
Departments are supposed to respond to access requests within 30 days or provide reasons why more time is necessary, such as a large volume of material or a need to consult other parties.
“We’re seeing delays, at every turn, of politically sensitive information,” Angus said in an interview.
Clement says the Conservatives are proud of their record on Access to Information. In the House of Commons this week, he touted the fact a high of more than six million pages of records were released last year. And the government has plans to put more information and data online for citizens, researchers and entrepreneurs, he said.
In a recent interview, Clement called the access law “a good piece of legislation” – despite persistent criticism from Legault, pro-democracy groups and opposition MPs that it allows the government to keep too much vital information under wraps.
Angus said Clement has no credibility on openness and transparency. “He sounds like a flim-flam artist at a country fair.”
In his letter, the NDP critic tells Clement all indicators appear to show delays for requesters getting longer and material being held back by government agencies more often. “Your applause for the current state of a broken system that is in tatters and a government withholding information from Canadians is as astounding as it is cynical.”
In the 2006 election campaign, the Harper Conservatives promised sweeping changes to the access law, including fewer loopholes and new powers that would allow the information commissioner to order the government to release information.
“The Conservative party hasn’t always been so oblivious to the need for accountable government and the need for reforming the access to information system,” Angus writes.
Fellow New Democrat MP Pat Martin’s private bill to update the access law was voted down.
Another private bill to overhaul the law, sponsored by Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, is still in play – though it lacks government support.
Angus indicated the NDP would vote in favour of the legislation.
“We’re saying, ‘Yeah, let’s do this. This is in the interest of Canadians.”’