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Liberals won’t commit to meeting platform promises on transparency by next election

By Peter Mazereeuw      

Conservative MPs called for the Treasury Board president to explain the delay on access to information reform to the House Ethics Committee, but were voted down by the committee's Liberal majority.

The 'objectivity' of the federal public service is top of mind for the government as it draws up its plan to make government information more accessible to the public, says Treasury Board President Scott Brison. The Hill Times photograph by Jake Wright
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The government’s lead on Access to Information Act reform isn’t making any promises to change the law before Canadians go to the polls again in 2019.

Treasury Board President Scott Brison (Kings-Hants, N.S.) wouldn’t commit to completing before the next election the changes to Canada’s access to information regime that the government has promised—including opening up ministers’ offices to access to information requests and completing a review of the Access to Information Act—in a brief interview with The Hill Times on March 26.

Mr. Brison didn’t directly confirm or deny if he would keep the promises before the election. Instead, he repeated the rationale given to the Canadian Press last week, which quoted a statement from Mr. Brison’s office saying changes to the government transparency regime would be postponed without a timeline for completion, to allow time to “get it right.”

“We are moving forward to modernize the act, but again, we will get it right by ensuring that we take into account the privacy of Canadians, the independence of the judiciary, and the work of the public service in terms of its objectivity,” Mr. Brison told The Hill Times.

However, Mr. Brison’s office, via a written statement, did recommit to a two-stage approach to overhauling Canada’s access to information regime, including “initial legislative changes” as well as a formal review in 2018. Mr. Brison’s office did not clarify whether the legislative changes would be completed before next year’s review, or if the review would be finished prior to the election.

Despite orders from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to make government information “open by default,” Canada’s access to information regime is under fire from multiple sides. Parliamentarians are still complaining that they are being denied access to government documents and data. The number of total access to information requests is rising year over year, and the number of complaints over slow responses to requests, or improperly redacted or withheld documents, is rising along with it. The Office of the Information Commissioner, which manages those complaints, is unlikely to clear a backlog of complaints despite a temporary influx of cash for that purpose from the Treasury Board mid-way through last year, and there was no new money announced for the commissioner in last week’s budget.

Changing technology drives need for reviews

The Liberal government promised several reforms to the law and procedures governing access to information requests, through which members of the public can obtain government emails, documents, and data, though they are often withheld or heavily redacted through broad exemptions in the Access to Information Act.

Liberal MPs voted down Conservative MP Pat Kelly’s motion last week that the minister responsible for the Access to Information Act, Scott Brison, appear before the House Ethics Committee to explain the pause on proposed transparency reforms. The Hill Times photograph by Peter Mazereeuw

The Liberals campaigned on promises to undertake a full review of the Act every five years; to make government data available in more user-friendly formats; to waive most user fees associated with requests; to give the federal information commissioner the power to compel documents from government; and to open ministers’ offices, the PMO, and administrative institutions that support Parliament and the courts to access requests.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (Papineau, Que.) has also ordered that all government information be made “open by default” to the public.

Mr. Brison has already ordered that all fees beyond a $5 initial filing fee for requests be waived, and that data be made available in user-friendly formats. The remainder of the government’s access to information promises have been put on the back-burner.

Mr. Brison’s office had told The Hill Times just last month that changes to open up ministers’ offices and the PMO to access requests would be introduced before the winter’s end—a timeline that technically expired last week at around the same time of Mr. Brison’s office’s statement to the Canadian Press dismissing that target.

Mr. Brison announced last year that the first legislative review of the Access to Information Act would not begin until next year. He told The Hill Times last week that regular reviews would ensure the Access to Information Act would never become out of date, as it is now, saying that was “important given the rapidity of change of digital information and technology.”

Liberals block call to bring Brison before committee

The Liberal majority on the House Access to Information, Privacy, and Ethics Committee voted down a motion last week that would have summoned Mr. Brison to explain his decision to postpone the access to information reforms.

The motion was put forward by Conservative MP Pat Kelly (Calgary Rocky Ridge, Alta.), and supported by the NDP and Conservative members, not counting the committee chair, Conservative MP Blaine Calkins (Red Deer-Lacombe, Alta.), who did not vote, as per convention. The six Liberals on the committee defeated the motion, 6-3.

Mr. Kelly told the committee that Mr. Brison appeared to be “on his way” to breaking the government’s promises to reform the Access to Information Act, and said he should be called to “explain himself.” Fellow Conservative Matt Jeneroux (Edmonton Riverbend, Alta.) made a similar pitch to the group. None of the Liberals MPs spoke to the motion, nor did NDP MP Karine Trudel (Jonquière, Que.), who was there as a substitute for Daniel Blaikie (Elmwood-Transcona, Man.).

peter@hilltimes.com

@PJMazereeuw

Liberal campaign promises around access to information

Promise Fulfilled?
Make it easier for Canadians to access information by eliminating all fees, except for the initial $5 filing fee. Yes
Government data and information should be open by default, in formats that are modern and easy to use. We will update the Access to Information Act to meet this standard. Partially. Data is more often available in user-friendly formats, but information is often still withheld from media and Parliamentarians, and the Act has not been changed. The minister responsible, however, has issued an interim directive strongly encouraging federal officials to make information open by default.
Expand the role of the information commissioner, giving them the power to issue binding orders for disclosure. Not yet
Ensure that Access to Information applies to the Prime Minister’s and ministers’ offices, as well as administrative institutions that support Parliament and the courts. Not yet
Undertake a full legislative review of the Access to Information Act every five years. Not yet; promised for 2018

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