Liberals redefine key transparency promise in new bill

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OTTAWA—The federal Liberals are breaking with the spirit of one of their promises to increase government transparency and declining to extend the access to information system to cabinet ministers’ offices.

Instead, Treasury Board President Scott Brison said ministers’ offices, including the Prime Minister’s Office, will “proactively disclose” certain information under new access to information rules. That redefines a Liberals’ 2015 election promise that they would extend existing access to information law to the ministers’ offices, allowing any Canadian to request documents for a $5 fee.

“Canadians should not have to go through a request-based system for information that should be proactively disclosed,” Brison told reporters at a press conference Monday afternoon.

“We are strengthening both proactive disclosure, expanding it across government. (and) investing to strengthen the request-based system. Both are important in a modern access-to-information regime.”

So instead of being able to access documents cabinet ministers would rather keep secret, Canadians will be allowed to request documents the government knows in advance will be made public.

But because the Liberals have added a new proactive disclosure section to the Access to Information Act, Brison claimed they were making good on their promise to “extend” the legislation.

The Liberals are, however, making significant changes to the access-to-information regime — a 34-year-old system that has not been substantially updated since most government business was conducted with pen and paper.

Most significantly, Brison is granting the system’s watchdog the power to compel government departments to release information. Currently, information commissioner Suzanne Legault’s office can only recommend a department or agency release documents. The change has long been sought by Legault, who is to leave the watchdog’s office later this year.

The Liberals’ proposal also calls for a review of the system every five years, in hopes that future governments will not allow it to become as badly out of date as it currently is.

Theoretically, a number of criticisms of the system not addressed by Brison’s bill could be handled by a future parliamentary committee.

“These are important steps forward,” Brison said.

Access to information can be used by lawyers seeking records on behalf of their clients, researchers to unearth historical documents, citizens looking for information about government operations in their town and journalists poking their nose into the machinations of Ottawa.

At least in theory. In practice, the system has been overwhelmed by a dramatic increase in requests, is beset with delays and often spits out heavily censored documents.

According to Legault’s most recent report, requests under ATIP have increased 81 per cent over the last five years, to 75,400 requests in 2015-16. Only 64 per cent of requests that year were completed within 30 days — less than that if you exclude Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, the largest recipient of requests.

Access to information, according to Legault, has become a “shield against transparency.”

Brison said the government will provide more training and resources for departments to handle access to information requests and is committed to providing Legault’s office with more resources to handle a greater number of complaints and litigation.