By David McKie, Ideas Editor
As we continue to watch the Senate controversy swirl and highjack Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s agenda, it’s easy to overlook the criticism that seems to be the root cause of the problems besetting the Conservatives.
Excessive secrecy is the common denominator in many of the scandals that have side-swiped the government: the Afghan detainees, the F-35s, the in-and-out controversy, robocalls and now the Senate.
In the Mike Duffy case, it’s a question of what Harper knew about the infamous cheque and is he really coming clean?
Last month, there was another troubling report that also complained about secrecy: the information commissioner’s annual report.
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Suzanne Legault, who does not possess the fire-breathing tendencies of some of her predecessors, has taken the gloves off, blasting the Harper government for an access-to-information system that is going downhill, and fast.
This is a state of affairs that must concern journalists at a time when governments of all stripes, and at all levels, boast about being open and take credit for making public an ever-increasing amount of data.
Journalists must also take the gloves off by pushing governments to be more transparent, challenging those transparency claims and writing stories when they withhold information that should be released, either formally through access to information or informally through simply asking.
An access-to-information system at “serious risk”
An early indication that Legault’s annual report would be different from previous ones was apparent even before her Oct. 17 news conference began. Her mood was sombre, her tone was deliberate, her delivery was measured. The headline was dead easy to write: Canada’s federal access-to-information system is “failing dangerously.”
But Legault didn’t stop there. She pointed fingers. Named names. All eyes turned to Treasury Board president Tony Clement, the cabinet minister responsible for administering the act.
She urged him to demonstrate “leadership” and implement long-sought-after reforms that would force institutions covered by the act, such as Health Canada, the Canadian Border Services Agency, Transport Canada, the RCMP and the CBC, to release more information, sooner and with fewer restrictions.
But there is little evidence that Clement was listening. His office issued a statement suggesting that the system is working well, in large part because federal offices have “processed a record number of requests,”though the “record” numbers he quoted had not yet been posted on the Treasury Board’s website. How’s that for transparency?
During a scrum with reporters after Question Period, the minister noted that an increasing number of these requests were coming from citizens – not journalists. No great revelation there. His own statistics that can be found on the federal government's website have consistently demonstrated that completed requests by members of the “public” have been consistently higher than queries coming from journalists. My analysis of those same Treasury Board statistics shows that the number of requests has been trending upward since the Conservatives assumed power in 2006.
Source: Info Source. Analysis: David McKie.
Clement refused to address Legault’s demands for federal departments to respond to requests quicker, apply fewer exemptions, hire more people and give her office more power. Instead, all he did was point to statistics on his government’s own website that, to repeat, had not even been made public.
During Legault’s interview on my show, Power & Politics, host Evan Solomon played her an excerpt of Clement’s brief encounter with journalists in which he talked about the increased requests as proof that his department is doing a good job. The information watchdog acknowledged that the response didn’t even come close to addressing her concerns.
And it’s unclear whether those concerns were addressed during her meeting with Clement days before publishing her annual report. All she would say was that she’s “hopeful” he will change his mind.
That’s unlikely to happen.
The Throne Speech made no mention of access to information. And the government continues to point to the reforms it brought in under the Accountability Act that increased the number of institutions, including the CBC, that are covered by the act.
When the Accountability Act was being debated, I was invited to testify before the Legislative Committee on Bill C-2 in 2006. While applauding the fact that the law would cover more institutions, I argued that without more money to hire the sufficient number of officials to handle requests, which even back then had been steadily increasing, the system was guaranteed to fail. Even back then, officials in access-to-information offices were overworked, in large part because the Liberals had failed to give them adequate resources.
Now, in 2013, I’m making the same argument. So is the information commissioner.
Offices crumbled when responding to crises such as the 2008 listeriosis crisis, the F-35 fiasco, the controversy over Afghan detainees, last year’s beef recall and, most recently, the Lac-Megantic tragedy. In all those instances, the delays were inevitable because an already strained system was crumbling under the deluge of responses. Departments used sections of the law to argue that information be withheld because the material in question was a matter of “cabinet confidence.”
The information commissioner suggests having some sort of SWAT team that would be able to swoop in and help overburdened departments handle the workload. That seems like a reasonable and cost-effective suggestion.
Legault also argues having more staff would eliminate complaints of delays, which increased 46 per cent during the most recent fiscal year. Getting rid of these complaints could go a long way to making the system more functional.
As for the recommendations that go beyond the practical to the legal, such as eliminating many of the exemptions departments use to withhold information, including Parliament under the act ( a suggestion that has been around for several years) and giving her office more power to investigate, there is no indication the government is interested. And, perhaps even more disappointingly, the Opposition parties are silent.
Legault is set to table more reports on political interference and the need to include Parliament in the act later this fall. The controversies over the Senate and MPs’ expenses should add urgency to this recommendation. However, based on precedent, the government’s reaction promises to be the same.
This is a sad state of affairs, and not a way to commemorate the 30th anniversary of a law that began with so much promise.
Secrecy is the order of the day. The Senate scandal is just the latest manifestation of a trend that shows no signs of abating.