Alberta Premier Jim Prentice has personally ordered that documents from all general freedom of information requests be publicly posted, despite serious concerns from the civil servants responsible for implementing the new policy, CBC News has learned.
Critics say the plan — if implemented — represents a major policy change that will seriously undermine the ability of opposition parties and the media to hold the government accountable.
"[This policy] is being used as a way, in fact, to go around and suffocate the right of access," Ottawa lawyer and access to information expert Michel Drapeau said.
"Is it democracy? Yes — democracy at its worst," Drapeau said.
A spokesman for Alberta privacy commissioner Jill Clayton confirmed the government did not consult with her office about the proposed plan.
Sources have told CBC News freedom of information co-ordinators from all government departments were called, on short notice, to a meeting on Feb. 3.
The meeting was led by Doug Morrison, head of information access and protection for Service Alberta, which oversees the administration of the province's Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act.
The sources said Morrison told co-ordinators Prentice had ordered the government to start posting all documents requested through general freedom of information requests — for example, requests that do not explicitly seek personal information — on the government’s open data portal every Friday.
In the past, government departments normally did not publicly release the documents obtained by freedom of information applicants such as opposition parties, media outlets, advocacy groups and businesses.
Civil servants blindsided
Sources said the freedom of information co-ordinators were blindsided by the Prentice directive and immediately identified several problems the new policy could create, including:
- The potential for privacy breaches.
- An increased legal risk for the government if it discloses copyrighted material, or confidential business information.
- Backlash from the media, as the new policy would effectively eliminate scoops and undermine long-term investigations.
- The inability of the government to justify charging fees for documents that would soon be publicly posted.
Some freedom of information co-ordinators also privately questioned the propriety of Prentice personally ordering a change to policy while the privacy commissioner’s office is conducting an investigation into political interference in freedom of information.
Sources said these concerns were largely ignored. Co-ordinators were told they had to implement the new policy as planned, although legal research had yet to be completed.
Political parties, the media, and advocacy groups frequently use freedom of information requests as a tool to hold the government accountable and expose questionable or corrupt practices by politicians, bureaucrats or within departments.
Wildrose Leader Heather Forsyth said the time constraints created by this new policy will inhibit her party’s ability to perform its role as the Official Opposition.
"Instead of being proactive on our freedom of information, we will be [on the] defensive," she said.
"I guess it is another step in Premier Prentice’s plan to crush anything and, quite frankly, anyone whose job it is to hold the government accountable."
She pointed to a Feb. 5 news conference in which Alberta Health Services CEO Vickie Kaminski unveiled new cost-cutting measures, including a cellphone policy designed to rein in roaming charges.
Six days later, the Wildrose received records it had requested through freedom of information about exorbitant cellphone bills incurred by health service employees.
Alberta Health Services subsequently acknowledged the new cellphone policy had been spurred "in part" by the Wildrose freedom of information request.
Proactive political spin
Forsyth said Prentice’s new policy will similarly allow the government to proactively "spin" damning information and shorten the news cycle of public-interest stories.
"I guess our strategy will have to be completely different," she said.
"I think Albertans need to know what the government is trying to do, and [that] it is wrong," Forsyth continued. "I have been through five premiers now and never seen anything like it."
New Democrat Leader Rachel Notley said it was troubling the government appears to have ignored the province’s privacy commissioner.
"The reason we have a privacy commissioner is to make sure that everybody’s rights in the process of information acquisition and distribution are respected," she said. "What the premier is attempting to have done is to have the government’s rights and political interests elevated above that of the people who are otherwise part of the freedom of information process."
Canadian Association of Journalists president Hugo Rodrigues said the proposed plan would act as a disincentive for reporters to use freedom of information. The plan could eliminate a reporter’s exclusive stories, which are highly valued by media outlets.
Rodrigues said the plan could also significantly reduce the amount of time reporters have to analyze the information and conduct further research and interviews.
Like other critics, he expects the government will market the new policy as a means of increasing transparency.
"If the government truly wanted to be more transparent and accountable, the information would be publicly available and the people who have to use the freedom of information legislation to get the information would not have had to file that request in the first place," he said.
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