Tuesday, April 11, 2006

ironic an accountability reform with a harper govt. that weakens our exisiting rights ...

Government has second thoughts about access-to-information reforms
April 11, 2006

The federal Conservatives backpedalled Tuesday on promised reforms to the law that allows Canadians access to government files - and even threw in wording that would weaken existing rights.

Legislation introduced Tuesday in the Commons does not include several changes to the Access to Information Act promised by the Tories during the winter election.

In their campaign platform, the Conservatives promised to implement Information Commissioner John Reid's recommendations for reforming the 23-year-old access law.

The Federal Accountability Act tabled Tuesday would expand the scope of the access law to cover three foundations, several agents of Parliament and seven additional Crown corporations - including Canada Post, the CBC and Via Rail.

But the legislation does not include Reid's proposals to make cabinet documents more accessible and limit the scope for withholding sensitive information from release.

Reid, an ombudsman for users of the law, had also called for changes that would impose a legal duty on bureaucrats to create records, and usher in incentives and penalties to encourage departments to answer requests for information on time.

Under the Access to Information Act, Canadians who pay $5 can request government files ranging from audits and expense records to briefing papers and correspondence. Ideally, they are supposed to receive an answer within 30 days.

But the law has drawn persistent criticism as out of date, riddled with loopholes and poorly administered.

Instead of including Reid's full slate of recommendations in the Accountability Act, the government bundled them into a draft bill for consideration by a parliamentary committee.

The Tories also issued a discussion paper that raises questions about a number of Reid's proposals. The document says several elements of access reform are extremely complex and require further analysis, discussion and debate.

The Conservatives said Tuesday this approach is necessary to balance the value of transparency with the legitimate interests of individuals, other governments, and third parties in the security and confidentiality of their dealings with government.

The Liberals quickly pounced.

Where is the prime minister's pledge to implement the information commissioner's recommendations? Opposition Leader Bill Graham asked during question period.

New Democrat MP Pat Martin also criticized the package.

They cherry-picked the easy and obvious stuff in terms of Access to Information reform, and they left the meaningful provisions.

At least one measure in the Accountability Act would diminish existing rights by giving federal agencies the power to refuse to release draft versions of internal audits.

Treasury Board President John Baird, the cabinet member responsible for the accountability package, defended the access measures and the decision to engage in further study.

We're moving forward with all the commitments we made.

Ken Rubin, a longtime openness advocate and user of the access law, was disappointed with the federal proposals.

They've gutted the act further, they haven't improved it.

Rubin dismissed the government discussion paper as a one-sided attempt to further secrecy.

The Canadian Newspaper Association and the Canadian Taxpayers Federation planned to comment on the access reforms at joint news conference Wednesday on Parliament Hill.

Reid was taking time to study the package before commenting.

He said in an interview earlier this week there was nothing radical about the reforms he had suggested to Parliament last year.