Justin Trudeau’s promise of transparency is starting to look empty: Editorial – Delay on access-to-information reform suggests the Liberals are the latest party to promise openness on their way to power, only to recoil from scrutiny once in government.
The announcement this week that the Trudeau government will indefinitely delay its planned reforms of Canada’s antique and out-of-order access-to-information law will come as no great shock to keen students of political history. Too often parties promise openness on their way to power, only to recoil from scrutiny once in government.
So it was with Stephen Harper, who campaigned on a vision of renewed accountability in Ottawa. In opposition, he spoke rousingly about the democratic pitfalls of omnibus bills and the need for fiscal transparency. Among his first acts in office was to create a new budgetary watchdog to hold his government to account.
As prime minister, of course, his appetite for openness famously vanished. His own budget bills regularly filled hundreds of pages, surpassing by far the length and diversity of any that came before. Not even parliamentarians knew much of what was in them. As for the watchdog, Harper fought the office at every turn, denying it the information it needed to do its job.
In the words of one Liberal campaign document, “Under Stephen Harper, the government (grew) secretive and closed-off from Canadians.” Justin Trudeau promised something better, “a sweeping agenda for change” premised on “a simple idea: transparent government is good government.”
Item No. 1 on the to-do list: “We will amend the Access to Information Act.” Trudeau was right to promise to modernize our access regime, as most of our peer countries have done. And in the early days of his government, he seemed to mean it. Trudeau quickly established an all-party parliamentary committee to review the law and vowed to implement its recommendations by early this year at the latest.
But last October, Treasury Board President Scott Brison started to demur. He said the government needed more time and would pursue reform in two stages, with the “early wins” to be completed this winter. Now he has abandoned a timeline altogether.
Plus ça change.
Access-to-information laws have become an essential feature of modern democracy. They allow citizens to watch over their governments and hold them to account. Yet Canada’s law, designed for an analog world and largely unchanged for three decades, is grossly inadequate to the task.
In recent years, loopholes have too often been used to keep politically inconvenient information secret. Federal officials, for instance, have invoked so-called cabinet confidentiality with alarming frequency. In 2013-14, it was used a record 3,100 times – a 49-per-cent uptick over the previous year. As the information commissioner has argued, the law no longer ensures openness, but now does the opposite, acting as a shield against disclosure.
Of course, reform won’t be easy. A fine balance must be struck to ensure that openness is the default, while protecting the frank and open exchange among cabinet ministers. But that’s why the government created the all-party committee and gave it time to thoroughly study the literature and international precedents. Nearly a year after it published its recommendations, why has almost no progress been made? This week’s modest federal budget suggests the government doesn’t have much else to do.
Two steps, in particular, should not have to wait.
First, when an access request has been rejected on grounds of cabinet secrecy, the information commissioner should have the power to investigate that refusal. Currently, the commissioner isn’t allowed to see the documents involved.
Second, the Trudeau government should fulfill its campaign promise to invest the commissioner with the authority to issue “binding orders” that would force government disclosures required by the act. Under the current system, she can overturn a government decision only by taking Ottawa to court.
Both of these measures have been widely endorsed by transparency advocates, as well as by the information commissioner and the parliamentary committee. The government should implement them – and soon, lest the Liberals become precisely what they came to power protesting.
The Star by Star Staff
March 24th 2017