Question period eats up everything the Auditor General recommends, mulls everything the Parliamentary Budget Officer concludes, and quotes everything a central banker warns during unsteady times. The information commissioner should be so lucky. Suzanne Legault’s 104-page attempt at comprehensive reform of Canada’s Access to Information Act, a report tabled this morning that claimed the right-to-know law has morphed into “a shield against transparency” that “has encouraged a culture of delay”, barely caused a stir in the House of Commons.
Thomas Mulcair and Justin Trudeau get to set each day’s agenda, and today they cared more about a budget date they demanded from a government unwilling even to drop a hint. The red and orange teams spent the rest of their 45-minutes hate telling the government side how poorly it understands jobs and the economy. Spare moments brought questions about temporary foreign workers and anti-terror legislation and Syrian refugees and humanitarian aid and food inspection and infrastructure funding. Only a pair of New Democrats piped up about Legault’s 85 recommendations and the government’s spotty record on access to information.
NDP MP Ève Péclet stood first and, without wasting a second, positioned her party as on the side of the angels. The government ought to listen to Legault, Péclet bellowed. The Tories were wrong last year to vote against Bill C-567, a private member’s bill sponsored by NDP MP Pat Martin that would have strengthened the information commissioner’s order-making powers (and cribbed proposals from page 12 of the Tories’ 2006 election platform). Tony Clement, the Treasury Board President who’s behind the government’s open-data portal and record-setting count of completed access-to-information requests, offered only to read Legault’s report.
“I’d like to thank the commissioner for her report. We will be examining the recommendations,” he said. Auditor-General reports usually have governments accepting or complying with recommendations. Examining promises nothing. So the NDP’s second act of the afternoon, the theatrical Charlie Angus, took the stage in full incredulity. Angus spoke of a Prime Minister who used to promise reform. He spoke of a PM falling off the rails and failing to open doors. He mentioned a culture of secrecy. He sought justice.
Clement responded shortly. “I’d like to provide the member with actual information,” he said. “In fact, since 2006, we have completed more access-to-information requests than the Trudeau, Turner, Mulroney, Campbell, Chrétien and Martin governments combined.” Remarkably, those talking points mirrored Clement’s words last June, recorded by Hansard for all time. No need for deeper thought.
That was it for the recommendation-heavy tome, Striking the Right Balance for Transparency. Election years might be the best years to debate any government’s attitude towards disclosure, manipulation, shredding, obfuscating, redacting and spinning of the information within its thousands of physical and virtual walls, but question period proved once again that information, in the abstract, doesn’t make good politics.
Hours later, the House debated Trudeau’s own private member’s bill, C-613, which also pitches a few changes to the access law (and, as a bonus, would even make a secretive parliamentary committee less secretive). Trudeau’s bill will produce press releases and possibly a quote or two for a newspaper and the evening news—but it won’t capture the public imagination, and probably won’t get anywhere in the House of Commons. Turns out an entrenched culture of secrecy is hard to defeat.
Legault is the latest information commissioner to bash her head against a wall, but she’s not the first. They’ve all urged reform. They’ve all tried to make the law’s problems matter to the public. They’re all smart people who’ve worked with the law every day. None has convinced any government to shake its head and listen.
What reform advocates really need is something else entirely: a grassroots, word-of-mouth campaign seeded by a perfectly average person who’s totally disconnected from politics. That person needs to find some value in the Access to Information Act, an answer to a question, a solution to a puzzle, a little bit of relief after a lot of consternation. If that person squeezes something useful out of a federal department, and tells two friends to find their own relief and spread the gospel, suddenly everyone’s onboard.
Patient Zero in this epidemic of civic participation might be hiding in plain sight. In her 2013-14 annual report, Legault referred to a complaint filed by some guy who only wanted an answer. “A man sought more information from Canada Post so he could understand how it had lost a number of his parcels,” Legault wrote. The source of that complaint remains anonymous, but he could be the guy, apparently from Ajax, Ont., who filed Request# A-2013-00054 in May 2013.
The number of lost letters and parcels reported to or complaints filed with the Postal depot for the contractor and/or employee of Canada Post for the postal route which serves Field Cres in Ajax Ontario for the period December 1, 2011 to April 16, 2013.
Canada Post disclosed two pages, and Legault eventually closed the man’s resulting complaint. Those two pages, if they proved to our guy that the system works, could hold the key to the revolution. Everything could start in Ajax.
Suzanne Legault seems to think the federal government she keeps an eye on is somewhat secretive. Canada’s information commissioner has held the job for five years and, today, she unloaded a 104-page indictment of the federal Access to Information Act. The 30-year-old law, crafted in the early ’80s and meant to give any ordinary Canadian a peek behind government’s closed doors, is essentially the same law as the day it received Royal Assent. Many have urged reform; none have triumphed. Legault says that’s not good enough anymore, and the law is broken. The world has changed, she writes. Governments have changed,too.
When the Act became law, information was mostly paper-based. Now, virtually all information is in electronic or digital form. The sheer volume of electronic data and the speed and methods of transmission have challenged government’s ability to collect, store, manage and share information with the public.
Moreover, the administration of government has undergone a fundamental shift since the early 1980s. Now, partnerships with, and outsourcing to, the private sector have become increasingly common ways for government to deliver services to the public. As well, policy development and decision-making increasingly takes place in ministers’ offices, which are not covered by the Act. As a result, accessing records necessary to hold government to account has become more complex, or, in some cases, impossible.
The commissioner sounded off on the law’s inadequacy and backward application. “The Act is applied to encourage a culture of delay. The Act is applied to deny disclosure. It acts as a shield against transparency. The interests of the government trump the interests of the public,” she wrote.
Legault makes 85 recommendations for reform. Right now, the law applies a $5 fee to each access-to-information request. The longer it takes federal departments to complete the request, the more expensive the final bill. Legault wants to eradicate fees. Currently, Parliament is exempt from the law. Legault says the institutions that support Parliament—the secretive Board of Internal Economy, for example—ought to open themselves up to the people. The commissioner also wants to restrict the timelines within which departments must respond to information requests, strengthen her office’s oversight of the Act, punish non-compliance, and force a review of the law every five years.
The government’s ministers, comfortable in their seats in the Commons, will likely ignore much, most, or all of Legault’s report. Everyone in the same position always has. And Treasury Board President Tony Clement, the government’s front-bench offensive defenceman, will respond to opposition pressure by showing off his government’s record on open data and access to information. He might trumpet all the data sets available at open.gc.ca or brag about the increasing number of access requests federal departments have sewn up in the past year. No doubt Clement will conclude with his standard, calm refrain: “We are an open and transparent government and will continue to be that way.” And that’ll be that, for now.