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Watchdog blasts Trudeau government over broken transparency promises

Justin Trudeau campaigned on promises to make his own office accountable to the public, but he didn’t.
September 28, 2017, 11:46am

Canada’s information commissioner has released a scathing 50-page report, chiding the government for breaking its promises on improving Canada’s transparency regime.

The Liberals introduced new legislation last spring to improve Canada’s Access to Information Act and government transparency. That legislation “fails to deliver,” according to a special report from Information Commissioner Suzanne Legault.

The legislation, titled bill C-58, was dubbed a “historic change” by the Liberals, but it does not go far enough in updating laws to make it easier for Canadians to access government information, Legault said.

In an interview with VICE News, Legault trashed the changes.

“I only need one sentence [to describe the bill]: This really effects a major regression in terms of access to information rights for Canadians,” she said.

Legault has spent years making recommendations on how to expand and improve the system. In 2015, Legault made more than 80 suggested improvements to the bill. “Very, very few” of those are in this legislation, she said.

“We are now completely overtaken by most countries in the world in terms of our access to information regime,” she added.

“The government promised the bill would empower the information commissioner to order the release of government information. It does not.”

Under the access to information system, Canadians can request official documents from government institutions. While the act was once world-renowned, the federal system has fallen into disrepair, as government bodies attempt to withhold information from the public, and officials lack the resources to process requests in a thorough and timely fashion, according to a litany of reports and audits written on the system in recent years.

News Media Canada, an association of journalists and publishers, said in an audit published this week that the access to information system “is bogged down to the point where, in many cases, it simply doesn’t work.” A House of Commons committee will begin deliberations on the new bill in October.

Legault says the government’s proposed changes will, overall, make that system even worse.

“The government promised the bill would ensure the act applies to the prime minister’s and ministers’ offices appropriately,” Legault writes. “It does not.”

“The government promised the bill would apply appropriately to administrative institutions that support Parliament and the courts,” she continues. “It does not.”

“The government promised the bill would empower the information commissioner to order the release of government information. It does not.”

Legault said these changes appear to deal with “concerns of government employees” and not of the journalists and transparency groups.

During the last federal election campaign, VICE News asked Prime Minister Justin Trudeau — then leader of the third party — whether Canadians could trust him to actually expand the act to his own office, should he be elected.

12 changes were negative and would hurt Canadians’ ability to obtain information from the government.

“If you’re in a situation where you’re doing something you really wouldn’t wanna end up on the front page of the newspaper or on vice.com the next day, you probably shouldn’t do it,” Trudeau said.

But Trudeau backed down on that promise. Instead, the legislation will only require ministers’ offices to publish certain types of documents — some, that are already public; and others, like talking points prepared for ministers’ appearances in Question Period, which are already intended for public consumption.

Read more: The Trudeau government’s access to information reform doesn’t expand transparency like they promised

In contrast to the government’s contention that C-58 would be a huge step forward for transparency and accountability, the commissioner writes that the bill “would instead result in a regression of existing rights.”

Treasury Board President Scott Brison, the cabinet minister responsible for the access to information system, did not respond to interview requests from VICE News. Previous interview requests were also ignored or refused.

Brison initially heralded the new legislation for “modernizing” for the act. The proposed new rules were informed by consultations with Canadians and the information commissioner herself, Brison told the House of Commons this week.

The information commissioner doesn’t see it that way.

Legault broke down the new legislation into 18 sections. She concluded that,12 changes were negative and would hurt Canadians’ ability to obtain information from the government, while four were improvements and three were unknown or neutral.

One change ends a requirement for government departments to make public the types of information they hold in their offices; another raises the possibility for increased fees on requests; and another fails to improve oversight on the system.

One major problem, she said, is that departments will now be able to refuse requests if the application does not specify either the exact nature of the request, the timeline, or the type of file being requested. She says that new requirement could severely hamper requests, from everyday citizens and from investigative journalists.

If the new legislation passes, Brison would be required to conduct a review of the act one year after C-58 becomes law, then every five years after that. Legault notes that having the government — instead of Parliament — review legislation is “atypical” and said its effect would be “unknown.”

Legault made 28 recommendations on how to fix the legislation, although her changes would be tantamount to overhauling the bill entirely and the government is under no obligation to adopt them.

One major problem identified by the commissioner are new “orders” created by the act that are intended to allow her to force institutions to release documents, if an investigation determines they were withheld in error.

“Bill C-58’s new ability for the Commissioner to ‘order’ disclosure of information is an ability without teeth,” she writes.

“As with I’ve said many times with this government: ‘I’ll believe it when I see it.'”

VICE News, which relies on the Access to Information Act for much of its investigative reporting, reported in July that public consultations on changing the act were nearly-unanimously in favour of expanding and stiffening the act.

The government ignored those recommendations.

Those consultation documents, obtained under the Access to Information Act, were heavily redacted to remove basic details of the government’s plans to overhaul the legislation.

VICE News has filed a complaint to the information commissioner regarding those redactions.

Legault says she is “hopeful the government will be listening to the criticisms that have been elicited.”

But, she adds, she’s not counting on it.

“As with I’ve said many times with this government: ‘I’ll believe it when I see it.'”

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