Information Commissioner Unhappy With Federal Accountability Act
The proposed Act is intended to make the operations of the federal government more transparent by toughening up nomination and contracting procedures, tightening conflict of interest rules, cracking down on wrongdoing through new protections for whistleblowers and extending the coverage of the federal access to information legislation.
Well, last week, the federal Information Commissioner, John Reid, the official in charge of defending citizens' right to receive government information, came out swinging against the proposed amendments to the access legislation contained in the accountability bill. Is the man disappointed? More like angry, very angry.
Reid has called the contemplated changes retrograde and a bureaucrat's dream. "The new government has done exactly the things for which its predecessor had been ridiculed."
The Conservative proposal ostensibly extends the access legislation to many Crown corporations and federal agencies that had until now escaped scrunity under our freedom of information laws.
But Reid argues that the government is adding so many new loopholes in its proposal that this would "increase the government's ability to cover-up wrongdoing, shield itself from embarrassment and control the flow of information to Canadians".
The Commissioner even issued a special report to parliament to denounce the government plans. And boy, is he mad.
"No previous government, since the Access to Information Act came into force in 1983, has put forward a more retrograde and dangerous set of proposals to change the Access to Information Act. Most recently, in 2002, the Liberal government of Jean Chrétien established a Task Force of government insiders to come up with recommendations for 'reform' of the access law. The result was so pro-secrecy that it prompted this Information Commissioner to table a Special Report to Parliament, in September 2002, raising this alarm:
Once again we are, with this Task Force Report, confronted with the reality that bureaucrats like secrets – they always have; they will go to absurd lengths to keep secrets from the public and even from each other. Bureaucrats don’t yet grasp the profound advance our democracy made with the passage, in 1983, of the Access to Information Act. They continue to resent and resist the intentional shift of power, which Parliament mandated, away from officials to citizens. A bureaucrat’s dream of reform is to get back as much lost power over information as possible (p. 10).
The current government’s proposals are every bit as much 'a bureaucrat’s dream' as were those of the Chrétien government.
This Special Report, as did the 2002 Special Report, sounds this alarm: The government’s access to information reform plan will not strengthen the accountability of government through transparency – it will weaken it.
There is no more eloquent testimonial to the power of the forces of secrecy in government than the radical change they have wrought, in a few short weeks, to the Prime Minister’s election promises for access reform. In his role as Leader of the Opposition, Stephen Harper ridiculed the Martin government’s decision to release a discussion paper, rather than to introduce a bill to reform the Access to Information Act.
Prior to the election, Stephen Harper, also ridiculed the content of the Martin government’s discussion paper saying that: 'it proposes to make the government more secretive than it already is, to propose a new 20 year gag order on draft internal audit reports and working papers, and to try to prevent the release of consultant reports for agencies for 20 years.' (Conservative Party press release, June 2, 2005).
The new government has done exactly the things for which its predecessor had been ridiculed. The government has issued a discussion paper rather than a comprehensive reform bill and in the proposed Federal Accountability Act, it has thrown a blanket of secrecy over draft internal audit reports and working papers, for 15 years (no need to demonstrate any potential for injury from disclosure!). Also, the government proposes to keep secret forever all records relating to investigations of wrongdoing in government." [end of excerpt]