John Ivison: The Liberals’ new legislation is consistent with the realization that if they don’t know what you’re doing, they don’t know what you’re doing wrong
Governments that came to power used to be able to burn their old speeches.
Sadly for incoming prime ministers in the digital age, the rash promises they made to get elected are archived, just a click away.
The Liberals pledged to restore trust in our democracy by being open with information as a default. The Access to Information Act would be updated to meet this standard, their election platform said, including an expansion of coverage to ministerial offices and the Prime Minister’s Office.
But the revised act revealed by Treasury Board president Scott Brison late Monday fell well short of those Olympian standards of transparency.
Instead of being open to ATI requests, in future those offices will proactively disclose travel and hospitality expenses, Question Period binders and ministerial briefing notes.
The press conference that followed was comedy gold.
“You broke your campaign promise right here. All you’ve done is codify proactive disclosure for a certain set of documents in ministers’ offices. Why did you break that campaign promise?” asked one disgruntled reporter.
Brison maintained the government is “fulfilling our commitment to our mandate commitments.”
“We are extending the Access to Information Act to ministers’ offices and the Prime Minister’s Office for the first time ever through proactive disclosure … (it) is absolutely consistent with open-by-default. Canadians should not have to go through a request-based system to get information that can be proactively disclosed,” he said.
In fact, the Liberals’ new legislation is consistent with nothing more than the realization by all parties in all ages that if they don’t know what you’re doing, they don’t know what you’re doing wrong.
As one reporter pointed out, under the new legislation citizens won’t even be able to request information on what went on behind the scenes to arrive at the decision not to include PMO or ministers’ offices from access requests.
The government claims it is breaking new ground by making some positive changes — giving the Information Commissioner the power to order government information be released, for example — but most of the reforms will work contrary to the pledge of open and transparent government.
Take the proactive disclosure commitment. The information that will emerge from briefing notes or Question Period binders is sure to be as sanitized, and therefore useless, as the average sterile government press release.
The real problem is the way the system is administered by the bureaucracy, which is zealous in its protection of the public’s right to be ignorant.
The act offers so many exemptions public servants are spoiled for choice in picking a reason to deny the release of information.
Release can be blocked if the information sought was obtained in confidence; if its release might impair federal-provincial relations; if it might impact international affairs or defence; if it interferes with law enforcement; if it might lead to the commission of an offence; it it relates to an investigation or audit; if it threatens the safety of an individual; if it provides personal information; etc. etc.
The exemptions are used as effective cover for the real reason: that release of information might embarrass the government.
Brison said increased training across government to get “common and uniform application and interpretation” of the rules will help. But the bureaucracy takes its cues from the top and the Treasury Board president is clearly saying, “Steady as she goes”.
Not only do the new amendments not remove the exemption on advice to ministers, the government adds even more roadblocks. One amendment says information should not be dislosed, if the request is judged to be “vexatious or made in bad faith.”
The newly expanded exemptions will mean more redacted answers, similar to the one received by my colleague Marie-Danielle Smith earlier this month in response to her request for the briefing notes of former global affairs minister Stéphane Dion.
She was told “some” of the information she asked for had been exempted under the section covered by international affairs — followed by two pages on which every word was blacked out.
It’s a farce, and Brison has been around long enough to know the changes he’s just unveiled will not make the slightest difference to helping citizens understand the government for which they pay so richly.
In her recent annual review, information commissioner Suzanne Legault said there is a “shadow of disinterest on behalf of the government” in transparency and accountability.
The public is not disinterested — in 2015-16 the number of requests filed rose to 75,400, up 81 per cent from five years earlier.
But Legault’s conclusion was blunt: “The Act is being used as a shield against transparency and is failing to meet its policy objective to foster accountability and trust in our government.”
Add this to the growing list of broken Liberal promises.